The ballot box may not offer many local residents in China much by way of a direct route to change should they be unhappy with development plans on environmental grounds. The streets are proving more effective. In Qidong, to the north of Shanghai, plans for an industrial waste pipeline have been scrapped following local protests that included ransacking government offices and overturning cars. The proposed pipeline would have emptied waste water from a paper factory owned by Oki, a Japanese company, into the sea near Qidong. Oki maintains the waste is filtered and clean. Local residents didn’t believe it. (This Bystander makes no judgement on the competing claims.)
The protest followed similar successful demonstrations against a planned metals plant in Shifang, a town in Sichuan earlier this month, and, over the past year, in places as far apart as Dalian in the northeast and Haimen in Guangdong. There is a growing appreciation on the part of the leadership and certainly on the part of many citizens that untrammeled growth with no regard to its environmental impact is no longer a road that China can travel, but the sentiment has not yet universally permeated the lower ranks of officialdom. There, promotions still depend on luring fresh investment to generate local economic growth.
Yet local residents are showing themselves to be less and less prepared to put up with dirty air, undrinkable water and tainted food and medicine. The underlying issue for the Party is how to manage these mostly legitimate grievances. Repeated crackdowns in the name of stability and social harmony is unsustainable. Nor does it solve the underlying problems, anymore than stopping online chatter about them does. Yet allowing local activism to get too violent too often, with the risk that it gets out of hand or spreads widely, is equally unacceptable, and especially to a new generation of leadership whose own youth was disrupted by the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.
That is not to suggest that environmental protests being seen today are analogous to the political anarchy of the Cultural Revolution, but there is a long-standing fear among the Party’s theoreticians that the environment is an issue where activism could coalesce into a political movement that could challenge the Party’s monopoly grip on power. The long-term answer, as some reformers in the Party have suggested, is to allow more local democracy. While there have been some tiny experiments in that direction in rural villages and Guangdong (see Wukan, et al), Party leaders know that it is a genie that once let out of the bottle is difficult to get back. Too few are still willing to take the risk.