Environmental Protests

Mass environmental protests continue to gain strength in China. Within the last couple of months thousands of people in different parts of the country have vocally, and in some cases violently, railed against polluting chemical plants, waste incinerator projects and coal-fired power plant expansions.

New incidents are reported every week through Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. The most recent large-scale incident saw more than a thousand people take to the streets in the suburbs of the northern industrial city of Tianjin claiming that pollution from a nearby steel plant was carcinogenic. Just days earlier thousands of residents in Wuchuan, a city in southern Guangdong, marched on government offices to oppose plans to build a waste incinerator near their homes.

These waves of protest are unique in that they are uniting China’s working and middle classes under a common grievance. Party leaders fret about political stability and potential challenges to the regime; pollution is one of their greatest concerns. But the Chinese government is failing to address the underlying cause of this discontent – an entrenched public distrust of officialdom – and, in the long term, is risking the possible ‘joining up’ of environmental protests into a widespread movement.

The government’s search for a solution is likely to prove fruitless; its only option appears to be maintaining social unrest at a manageable and local level. For these environmental protests are striking at the heart of the Chinese governance model of ‘adaptive authoritarianism’ and exposing its limitations. The Party’s strategy in dealing with major environmental disputes that bring together local communities across all ages and classes has often been one of short-term appeasement. But when governments are known to make ad-hoc concessions to quell disorder it encourages further episodes of contention.

The anger of protestors, each fighting their own local causes, was vindicated in April when an explosion at a chemical factory producing paraxylene (commonly called PX, and used to produce polyester and plastics) in Zhangzhou, Fujian province, required the attention of the Chinese army’s anti-chemical warfare unit and the evacuation of 30,000 people. Continue reading at Forbes Asia here.

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