ENVIRONMENTAL PROTESTS ARE of even greater concern to the leadership of China’s Communist Party than the threat of domestic terrorism. For one, they are far more widespread. The violence that broke out on May 10th in Zhongtai, a township outside Hangzhou, at a demonstration against building a waste incinerator there, may have been untypically bloody, but such protests in themselves are far from uncommon. Tens of thousands occur every year across the country.
The annual numbers are rising at a marked rate as far as we can tell. Some like one last year against China National Petroleum Corp.’s plans to build a petrochemical plant in Kunming gain international attention, but most remain local affairs. Nor do most secure more than get a delay to the unwanted project. Last year’s cancellation of a proposed lithium battery factory in the Songjiang district of Shanghai following large-scale protests was an exception rather than the rule.
Nor can the authorities point at the finger of blame on outside agitators, as they can do with the recent knife and bomb attacks blamed on militants from Xinjiang — though this Bystander will not be surprised to see the 50-centers on social media and their equivalent official unofficial voices in the public prints doing just that with environmental protests. There is too large a slice of China’s middle class concerned about the environmental degradation that has come with economic development for authorities to crack down on them all. Surveys of public opinion suggest that three-fifths to three-quarters of the public want the government to do more to improve the environment, and particularly to lessen pollution.
There is nothing exclusively Chinese about demonstrations against development projects by those who don’t want them in their backyards regardless of the greater benefit to a broader society. Incinerating waste rather than burying it in landfills and using the energy created as an alternative to coal-burning power generation plants is net for net an environmental gain for Hangzhou and the rest of the eastern China seaboard. Zhongtai residents are more narrowly concerned that what would be Asia largest incineration plant will further pollute their air and contaminate their water.
For the leadership, the long-term threat is that environmental protests will be the kernel form which a political party could grow to challenge the Party’s monopoly on political power. That is one reason it has allowed so many environmental protests to proceed for as long as they remain relatively local and peaceful. Indeed, thousands of residents have been protesting against the planned incineration plant in Zhongtai for the past couple of weeks.
What the leadership will not tolerate is attacks on symbols of national authority such as police. That puts it on a slippery slope. Throwing a dragnet over the Zhongtai in a search for 15 men suspected of involvement in Saturday’s violent clashes with riot police is meant to show that the leadership will tolerate only so much dissent — and that that has to remain local and disorganized.