People Power

China’s Green Protest Politics

Officials backed down over the expansion of a toxic petrochemical plant—but don’t expect Beijing to get an environmental conscience any time soon, says Dan Levin.

Ng Han Guan / AP Photo

Score one for the people.

The students, housewives, and businessmen who took to the streets for three days this weekend in the prosperous Chinese city of Ningbo had one demand: stop the expansion of a toxic petrochemical plant that produces Paraxylene, or PX, a vital component in plastics and paint. Armed with smartphone cameras, homemade signs proclaiming “I love Ningbo,” and their fear that industrial pollution was leading to rising cancer rates, the people faced off against hundreds of police in riot gear—and won.

On Sunday night, Chinese authorities announced a halt to the expansion plans and promised to conduct an environmental study of the factory. But the sudden—and largely peaceful—resolution to this local environmental conflict is rooted in distant politics. Next week, the central government will commence with the 18th Party Congress, a transfer of power to a new generation of top leaders that happens once a decade. The ruling Communist Party wants nothing to disturb this series of meetings, especially a lingering concern among Chinese that their well-being is at risk.

But as the Party Congress approaches, the Ningbo protests serve as a bracing reminder to the Communist Party that it would ignore China’s vast and growing middle class at its own peril.

“This is another example of the rise of the ‘mortgage class’—the increasing assertiveness of an urban, educated, middle-class citizenry that is ready to take to the streets on issues that may have a direct impact on their living environment,” said Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher on Asia at Human Rights Watch.

Whether that lesson is beginning to sink in is an open question.

As usual, the government has broken out its well-tested damage-control tools, banning coverage of the protests in the media and rapidly censoring photos of the protests from Chinese social networks. But the damage was done. This was not a rag-tag collection of dissidents but regular people of all ages unafraid of the “public security” forces out to stop them. The images—which show schoolchildren holding anti-factory posters, officers confiscating college students’ cameras, and women in high heels being tackled by riot police—spread like wildfire over Chinese social networks even as the censors scrambled to delete them.

While the protests were over environmental worries, the anger was directed at government officials. Enemy No. 1 was Ningbo’s mayor, Liu Qi, who has been rechristened online as “Poison Liu.”

Outrage over the project, an $8.8 billion expansion of a state-owned refinery supported by the local government, spiraled into violence on Saturday, much of it documented by smartphone-wielding demonstrators. Photos of tear-gas canisters and of police beating residents flooded the Web, and microblog users reported seeing people detained—posts and images that later vanished from the Internet.

But censorship has failed to stop protests over PX and other pollutants in the past, which may be another reason the government was so quick to say it’s canceling the project in Ningbo. In July thousands of Chinese protested against the building of a copper smelter in the southwestern city of Shifang. Last year thousands of residents in the northeastern city of Dalian took to the streets against a PX plant, which the government said it would close, though according to media reports authorities have yet to honor their word.

Environmental concerns have a way of overcoming the skittishness that ordinary Chinese generally feel about protesting. In a society where the people have little access to information about industrial projects and are completely excluded from the decisions that affect their lives, mass protests are the only option.

China’s rulers, meanwhile, often see environmental catastrophes as the annoying stepchild of economic development, to be covered up if necessary. A particularly damning example of that priority happened in 2005, when a state-run factory spilled the toxic chemical Benzene into a river that provides water to 4 million people in the northeastern city of Harbin. After denying the health risks for days, the local government shut off the water supply, citing “maintenance work,” before finally owning up to the spill. The official in charge of the environmental protection agency was then fired—only to reappear as China’s chief negotiator during the 2009 climate-change conference in Copenhagen.

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So far, the Ningbo government’s ad hoc retreat appears tactical, rather than signaling a newfound citizen enfranchisement on matters of public interest. “It effectively rewards escalating protests,” said Bequelin, citing a Chinese proverb the Communist Party surely fears: “No trouble, no result; small trouble, small result; big trouble, big result.”