July 1 is an important date in China, marking the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. Last year, the 90th anniversary of the CCP was celebrated with concerts, revolutionary re-enactments, and festivities throughout the nation. This year, citizens of Shifang, a small city in China¡¯s southwestern Sichuan province, ¡°celebrated¡± in an entirely different way¡ªby taking to the streets to protest a planned molybdenum copper plant, holding signs proclaiming, ¡°Long live the Chinese Communist Party, kick out the copper factory!¡±
By July 2, the protests had turned violent. Protestors gathered outside a government building and began throwing water bottles and smashing police cars. Shifang police responded with force, unleashing tear gas and using rubber truncheons against the crowd. Despite this, the protests continued. Finally, on the evening of July 3, the local government announced it would halt construction of the copper refinery.
The Shifang protests are just one instance of the ¡°mass incidents¡± that have been increasingly frequent in China. Several elements of these protests deserve further examination, from which two important conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, these protests demonstrate how ¡°Not in My Backyard¡± (NIMBY) activism that has begun spreading across China, reflecting an increasing environmental awareness among Chinese citizens. Secondly, these protests demonstrate how social media is playing an increasingly important role in China. The Shifang protests and its predecessors demonstrate the utility of social media in organizing protests and mobilizing not only local protestors, but also supporters nationwide. While some conclusions can be drawn from China¡¯s environmental protests over the past few years, these protests also raise two important questions about the future of both Shifang and China as a whole: will such protests have a lasting effect on environmental policy in China? And, perhaps most importantly, can China implement environmentally friendly policies without compromising its all-important economic growth?
NIMBY Activism: Better Environment, Better Transparency
The protests in Shifang are the most recent example of NIMBY activism in China; protestors gathered on the streets of Shifang to demand the closure of a copper plant that would have polluted the local environment and created health concerns. The copper plant, planned by the Shanghai-based company Hongda, was touted by the local government as a much-needed economy booster for Shifang, which was devastated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; over 87,000 people were killed in the region, and the local economy was left crippled. The planned factory would undoubtedly have improved the economy of Shifang, increasing employment and income in an economically devastated area. Despite the economic potential of the plant, Shifang residents were willing to put environmental and health concerns ahead of the possible fiscal benefits, highlighting a shift in the attitude of Chinese citizens that has gradually been occurring over the past decade. Citizens have become disillusioned about these types of projects. In their eyes, either the economic benefits of the plants will go directly to the government or to corrupt officials, or the environmental and health costs will outweigh any potential benefits to their financial state. The Shifang government¡¯s capitulation to the demands of the Shifang people is more significant; the government (begrudgingly) put the interests of the governed above the interests of the economy, even when they were the ones who stood to benefit the most. Such a decision is not typically seen in China, where the government¡¯s main priority is economic growth. This outcome demonstrates the strength of the protestors and their online supporters.
The unrest in Shifang is not an isolated incident, but rather a continuation of growing NIMBY activism in China. The Shifang protests were preceded by countless ¡°mass incidents¡± against the construction of potential polluters. In 2007, protests in Xiamen, a city in Fujian Province, halted the construction of a paraxylene plant that would have released toxic petrochemicals into the surrounding environment. In 2008, hundreds of Shanghai residents took to the streets to protest the planned extension of the maglev (short for ¡°magnetic levitation¡±) train, out of fear it would emit dangerous levels of radiation. They successfully compelled the Shanghai municipal government to suspend construction. In 2009, residents of the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province protested the construction of a garbage incinerator that would have potentially released poisonous gases into the air, forcing the government to postpone construction and eventually relocate the incinerator. In November 2011, roughly 12,000 residents of the northern coastal city of Dalian engaged in protests and ¡°group strolls,¡± where residents would ¡®coincidentally¡¯ take a walk at the same time in the same gathering place, in an effort to close a toxic paraxylene plant; the government quickly announced plans to shut down the chemical plant. In December 2011, violent protests in Haimen, Guangdong Province led to the suspension of construction on a coal-fired plant that would have damaged the environment and the health of the local population. These notable cases are supplemented by countless, less publicized protests. The cumulative effect shows a clear trend toward environmental awareness in China.
In addition to NIMBY activism, the Shifang protests and its predecessors demonstrate a growing concern for transparency within the Chinese government, both at a local and central level. Many of these protests were sparked by the desire of citizens to be more involved in and informed about government decisions, especially those that could affect their environment and their health. For example, many of the Shifang protesters expressed concern, not only over potential pollution, but also over the way the local government forced the construction plans through without consulting or informing citizens. Reuters quoted Shifang resident Zeng Susen¡¯s explanation of the situation. According to Zeng, ¡°We don¡¯t oppose the government, but they must explain the risks involved in a project like this, and they didn¡¯t. Their publicity efforts were not good enough.¡± A China-based Western diplomat, speaking on conditions of anonymity, shared the same opinion, explaining, ¡°It¡¯s a perception problem more than anything, a lack of trust in the government. There¡¯s not enough information.¡± After the protests began, the Shifang government tried to correct this lack of information by sending out mass texts to citizens explaining the economic benefits of the plant and downplaying its potential effect on the environment¡ªbut the announcement was too little, too late. This same call for greater involvement and transparency has been repeated during nearly every NIMBY protest, especially during the 2008 Chengdu protests, the 2007 Xiamen protests, and the 2011 Haimen protests. Chinese citizens have repeatedly shown their determination to become more involved and informed about their government¡ªespecially when those decisions have a direct effect on their daily lives.
The Role of Social Media
Social media has played an increasingly important role in protests in China, a trend that was clearly present in the Shifang protests. Days before Shifang residents took to the streets, opposition was mounting online on Sina Weibo, China¡¯s Twitter-like microblogging site. Posts by concerned Shifang residents warn that the plant would create potential health hazards, with dire warnings such as, ¡°Without doubt, Shifang will become the biggest cancer town in years,¡± and ¡°Overdose of molybdenum may cause gout, arthritis, malformation and kidney problems.¡± Students, the primary organizers of the movement, used the popular instant messaging tool QQ, BBS-provider Baidu Tieba, and mass text messages to spread their message and gain support among a wider pool of Shifang residents. Online posts also attracted attention nationwide, raising awareness of the issue and publicizing the protests. ¡®Shifang¡¯ quickly became one of the top-searched terms on Sina Weibo, and support poured in from across the country. This increased publicity and involvement added to pressure on the local government, playing a crucial role in persuading the government to cancel construction.
In using social media to raise awareness of their plight, Shifang protesters were following the example of numerous previous protests. All of the environmental protests listed above, and countless other protests throughout China, have used the internet to organize and publicize their protests. However, the Shifang protests were unique in one important area: they were not subject to the internet censorship found in virtually every other protest. For example, during the 2011 Dalian protests, the terms ¡°PX¡± (short for ¡®paraxylene¡¯), ¡°Dalian,¡± and ¡°Dalian protests¡± were all blocked on Weibo, and similar censorship occurred during the Xiamen, Shanghai, and Guangzhou protests. However, Weibo was left curiously uncensored during the Shifang protests. This relative freedom of expression contrasted greatly with the silence of the state-controlled media, which avoided reporting on the protests. While the reasons behind the unusual lack of online censorship remain unclear, some have suggested social media was deliberately left open in order to provide the Chinese people with an outlet for their anger. Allowing relative freedom of expression online would allow netizens to blow off steam, potentially avoiding both a more destabilizing conflict and animosity against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Regardless, the lack of censorship allowed the movement to gain national and even global attention. With the eyes of all of China on them, the Shifang government had little choice but to close the factory.
Questions for the Future: Is the Movement ¡°Sustainable?¡± Can Economic Growth be Eco-Friendly?
Although the protests in Shifang were successful, questions remain about the future of both Shifang and China¡¯s environmental movement as a whole. Even after the Shifang government announced the cancellation of construction for the copper refinery, many citizens remained unconvinced. One Shifang farmer responded angrily, ¡°They¡¯re liars! Nobody believes they won¡¯t build it eventually.¡± On the afternoon of July 4, a day after the Shifang government announced the suspension of the project, approximately 100 people gathered in front of the Communist Party headquarters in Shifang, many of them relatives of residents who had been detained during the protests. According to Reuters, a man at the site explained, ¡°People are still waiting to see if the government follows through on its promise to not build the plant.¡± Despite the government¡¯s reassurance, residents of Shifang remained skeptical and defiant.
Why does this level of distrust in the government remain? The simple answer is that local governments have proven untrustworthy in the past. For example, the 2011 Dalian protests, often referred to as an example of a successful NIMBY movement, ultimately resulted in failure. The Dalian government¡¯s decision to close the offending plant in August was widely publicized; less publicized was the plant¡¯s reopening in January 2012. The Dalian government continues to claim it will eventually move the plant to the nearby, less-populated Xizhong Island, yet fears of backtracking away from this claim remain. Furthermore, the decision to move the plant to another location marks only a partial victory, as it does not solve underlying environmental concerns that provoked the protests in the first place. Instead, the offending polluter is merely moved to a location where the local population is more compliant or more desperate for economic growth, as was the case with the Xiamen protests, which resulted in the plant being moved to nearby Zhangzhou. This type of resolution does nothing to decrease pollution in China or raise environmental standards; it merely pushes the problem into a less visible location. In the case of Shifang, it is not yet clear if the copper plant¡¯s cancellation will result in a permanent solution to the area¡¯s pollution problem.
The tentative success of NIMBY activism in China, as seen most recently in Shifang, has profound implications for China¡¯s future¡ªnot just in terms of environmental protection, but also in the areas of politics and the economy. Through the internet, local demonstrations can instantly gain nationwide support and gather the power to reverse government decisions. While falling far short of the revolutions seen in the Middle East¡ªin which social media and the internet played a crucial role¡ªthese protests in China mark an increase in the ability of Chinese citizens to shape their nation¡¯s policy. This could have dangerous repercussions for the CCP. If these recent environmental protests are an indication of the attitudes of the Chinese population as a whole, then Chinese citizens are increasingly willing to put environmental and health concerns ahead of China¡¯s economic growth. The CCP thus faces a difficult predicament; it must carefully balance the two foundations of its legitimacy¡ªeconomic growth and social stability. If the CCP focuses too strongly on economic growth, continuing to establish factories that earn profits but pollute the environment, then social unrest will increase and more incidents like the Shifang protests will occur. If the CCP chooses to focus on social stability, responding to environmental concerns and halting the construction of polluting factories, then economic growth will suffer. Without either economic growth or social stability, the CCP is at risk of losing its legitimacy.
Ultimately, the CCP has a difficult balancing act to maintain between the sometimes contradictory aims of economic growth and environmental protection. So far, the problem has been dealt with on a provincial level, with local governments taking the responsibility¡ªand especially the blame¡ªfor environmental protests. However, the problem is becoming increasingly endemic within local governments, and eventually they will no longer be able to handle the situation on their own. As China modernizes, Chinese society has begun developing a new set of values, where health and the environment are increasingly important. The supremacy of economic growth is now threatened¡ªand this threat could not come at a worse time. China¡¯s economy, already bruised by the global financial crisis and internal economic problems, could be facing another crisis if protesters continue to call for a green environment as opposed to economic development. In a country where the governing party¡¯s legitimacy is directly tied to economic performance, this could spell trouble for a political system already racked by corruption scandals and a looming political transition this fall.
By Emily Calvert
Emily Calvert is studying International Studies and Chinese Language at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She currently works as an intern for the China Program at The Carter Center.