PUBLIC PROTESTS AGAINST construction of a waste incineration plant in Wuhan (above), capital of Hubei province, were of a larger scale and allowed to run longer than is typical before being expunged from the streets and censored from public attention last weekend. Beijing may have been focused elsewhere, but this kind of social protest will be no less concerning to authorities.
Not least because it happened in a city that embodies the change to China’s economy. Whether you are looking for the growing domestic consumption story, the move up the industrial value chain, urbanisation or, self-evidently, the environmental challenges narrative, Wuhan has a piece of it. It is also, by repute, an above average incubator if the countries business talent.
If the city is indeed the everyday face of modern China away from the razzmatazz of Beijing and Shanghai, then flagrant denial of authority is not a feature of the official description.
Wuhan has now reportedly put the project on hold, saying it will consult residents over their concerns of potential toxic pollution and a further addition to the stench already created by a waste landfill in the same district as the proposed incinerator.
Protests against pollution have been the one area of civic unrest that has flourished over the past decade, albeit to an extremely limited extent. A couple of years back a city incinerator plant project in Guangdong was scrapped but not before police had fired tear gas at protestors. This time around, the policing was less trigger happy but still harsh.
The Party remains vigilant against any prospect that an environmental movement might blossom into a political challenge to its monopoly on power. None the less two facts are inescapable. China is generating ever more rubbish, and its citizens are ready to push for more say over how it is disposed of, especially not in their own backyards.
OFFICIALS IN THE southern Chinese town of Luoding in Guangdong province have cancelled plans to build an incinerator plant following mass protests this week. This volte-face followed more citizen concern about an explosion earlier in the week at a PX petrochemicals plant in Fujian that triggered some of China’s biggest environmental protests in 2007. The week also brought news that the environment ministry on March 30 had vetoed the construction of the $3.75 billion Xiaonanhai hydroelectric dam on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River 40 kilometres upstream of Chongqing.
The proposed dam threatened scores of species of endangered freshwater fish. Its cancellation marks a rare victory for Chinese environmental campaigners over the country’s powerful state-owned dam-building industry.
Environmental issues are highly sensitive for the Party. They are increasingly becoming the locus of social activism and dissent, and constitute the largest class of ‘mass incidents’ involving more than 10,000 people. As such, they are a potential source of that most feared threat to the political status quo, instability. Worse from the authorities point of view, environmental non-government organizations are a seed that could grow into political movements able to challenge the Party’s institutional monopoly of political power.
Beijing is managing this dissent by tolerating it in limited areas, and increasingly allowing spontaneous (i.e., no coordinated collective action) small-scale local activism. It has controlled labour unrest in much the same way. Worker incidents are not allowed to be coordinated by preexisting groups. They have to be specific to an individual enterprise. And they can’t have a life beyond the resolution of the specific incident, i.e. they can’t spawn a lasting organisation. The same blueprint is being applied to environmental protests.
The continuing clampdown on academia and on the media, including social media, which is a potentially powerful way to ‘organise without an organisation’, indicates that this tolerance will not be extended to any bigger thinking dissent or organisation against central government. Ideology remains inviolate.
There is to be no joining of the dots between economic development, environmental degradation and social inequalities. Witness the quick censorship of the online documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome, produced by Chai Jing, a former TV presenter and CCTV investigative journalist, once it had gone viral on social media. Such an approach acts as a social safety valve, allowing a build-up of pressure to be blown off and the system to return to its pre-existing stable state.