Li Jing [email protected]
31 October 2012
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Mainlanders are increasingly taking to the streets in protest over industrial development, a phenomenon analysts say is a serious challenge for local officials.
In the latest case, big demonstrations in the Zhejiang city of Ningbo successfully halted a plan to expand a Sinopec petrochemical complex.
Analysts said it had once again shown how rising environmental activism nis challenging an outdated mode of local governance - where decisions are made behind closed doors and critical information is kept from the public.
Amid widespread distrust of the city government's pledge to halt a 55.8-billion-yuan (HK$69.3 billion) expansion plan, Ningbo deputy mayor Chen Zhongchao spoke on Monday about the abandoned plan to increase production of toxic paraxylene, known as PX, which was the focus of public protests.
Widely used in paint and plastics, PX can damage the central nervous system, liver and kidneys if inhaled in large quantities. Chronic exposure may be fatal.
"Expansion of the petrochemical complex involves many facilities, and the PX production is only one of them, so it is not correct to say - as some people believed - that all 55.8 billion yuan would be spent on PX. Now the government and the investor have decided to completely drop the plan," Chen said.
An announcement by the Zhenhai district government last Wednesday avoided any mention of the PX project, triggering more discontent and leading to massive protests at the weekend.
"This shows that from the very beginning, the government has been too arrogant to communicate with us," one Zhenhai resident said. The Sinopec plant already produces 500,000 tonnes of PX a year.
Still, the Ningbo protests marked another victory for mass rallies about environmental concerns. In July, the government of Shifang in Sichuan abandoned plans for a heavy-metal processing plant and the government of Qidong in Jiangsu abandoned plans for a waste-water pipeline from a paper factory after thousands took to the streets.
Tang Hao, an associate professor at Guangzhou's South China Normal University, said the protests signalled an increase in environmental activism on the mainland, with ordinary people joining in. A few years ago only a small group of green activists would have been involved.
Yang Chaofei, a retired official from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said government statistics showed that the number of environmental "mass incidents" had grown by an average of 29 per cent a year between 1996 and last year.
Ma Jun , director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the victories by street protesters reflected the failure of the top-down and opaque mode of decision-making that had prevailed for the past three decades.
"The existing mode of decision-making obviously cannot address environmental concerns over the heavy industry sector," Ma said. "Meanwhile, street protests are not the right answer to all environmental problems. So it is very urgent for a new mechanism to be found that allows people's voices to be heard before any decision is made."
Tang sees the street protests as part of an overall social movement that reflects a rising crisis for local government on the mainland, exacerbated by other problems such as a flawed judicial system. "Luckily these street protests have been largely peaceful up to now," Tang wrote in a recent essay. "But there are no guarantees that will be the case next time. Before we see serious violence, before true enmity takes root, we need a fresh start for China's social governance."
The Ningbo protests prompted some local people to question the role of government, following the use of force to disperse peaceful protests.
"We were all shocked when the armed police started to drag away peaceful protesters who were only singing the national anthem or taking pictures, when our only demand was for a liveable environment," the Zhenhai resident said.
The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said about 200 protesters were injured by police during the rally. More than 70 were temporarily detained.
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