PXit Strategy – Jonathan Ansfield

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From Biganzi’s Jonathan Ansfield:

It appears all but official: Xiamen’s Taiwanese-invested paraxylene (PX) plant is likely to get the boot downshore to Zhangzhou. A precedent for public oversight of the planning process, or a mere perfect storm? Future events will determine the full significance of the punkish-sounding anti-PX campaign. But in the Chinese media, official and non-, positions are already being staked out. Environmental officials and the predominately liberal media are hitting hard, quick and clear, even as the Party establishment seem determined to deliver a muted, diluted and drawn-out official verdict. Helped by this disparity, the story has given off a refreshing whiff of democratic progress for days now. But who ever said the Party gospel of “scientific development” was anything but political science?

On the heels of a ten-day period of public feedback, last week saw a series of suggestive press leaks. To their new assessment of the environs around the PX site, the Beijing Environmental Science Research Institute faithfully appended a note on the public’s unwavering opposition. Major media outlets and bloggers have since basked gloriously in the apparent coup, pronouncing it a fair and rational display of “people power”, while dismissing or disregarding mounds of internal manipulations, public misinformation, and underhanded motives in the nine-month controversy – for and against the project – not to mention legal and scientific arguments put forth on either side which remain highly disputable (subjects for another day, or maybe a book). Such oversights are more than understandable, though, and the ends probably justify the means.

“Yeah, we’re sort of playing it dumb now, but that’s the fun of it,” one journalist covering the case told this reporter. “The media’s doing its best to put its point across within our limits of what we can individually publish.”

On Friday, flicking at the Xiamen case in the lede, the China Youth Daily quoted environmental chief Zhou Shengxian pledging increased public information, hearings, and debates to involve the public on projects in their midst. In its year-end edition earlier this week, Southern Personalities Weekly declared Xiameners “People of the Year.” Last week, outlets as various as People’s Daily and Southern Weekly (translated by ESWN) put an abundantly positive spin on the city’s 10-day period of public feedback and forums. “In terms of respecting city residents’ right to be informed, the Xiamen city government ran a make-up class. In terms of opening up [communication] channels and listening to the will of the people, the Xiamen city government went from a passive position to one of taking the initiative,” People’s Daily observed last week in one of the more judicious reports.

On his Bullogger.com blog on Thursday, Zhong Xiaoyong, a.k.a. Lian Yue, declared the victory a “full-package specimen of citizen expression, participation, and decisionmaking.” He continued: “Now that this model has come about, it’s available for all Chinese citizens to use. They don’t need to have it as hard as the people of Xiamen did.” The irrepressible Lian dashed off ten lessons to be taken from the experience in Xiamen. Number Ten: “All parts of China shall enjoy the glory of Xiamen residents.”

Meanwhile, predictably, officials are trying to temper the fanfare.

On Monday morning, this reporter was informed, the city called a meeting of ranking officials from local government departments and official media outlets in the city. An estimated 1,000 people attended. The purpose, according to another Xiamen-based journalist who was on hand, was to brief them on the deliberations, to “unify minds” as they prepared for a definitive announcement, and to prevent anything unexpected from happening in the interim.

Xiamen party secretary He Lifeng presided. “He kept things rather vague,” said the journalist. He informed the gathering that, as the amended assessment seemed to imply, the city was formally recommending that the project be relocated. Repeating Fujian province’s win-win line (reported in the Ta Kung Pao), he stated that even if the PX plant was built in Xiamen, the future expansion of its owner, the Xianglu Group, would be hindered in Haicang district; thus it would be better off elsewhere. He named Zhangzhou’s Gulei peninsula as one possibility. He also said that Xiamen was willing to help offset the costs of boosting the facilities at the port there, which is under-equipped, to meet the company’s needs. But for now, the city boss pointed out, Xiamen was still waiting for central government to sign off on the recommendation.

So in the meantime, the party secretary stressed, it was particularly critical to maintain social stability. Officials and the media had to make sure that the intervening period “go by smoothly,” the journalist recalled him saying. He also said he hoped this PX case would no longer be “a focus of the media,” so that before the final decision emerged, there would not be any “unnecessary interference.” Despite the size of the crowd, the briefing was classified and participants were instructed not to divulge details of what was discussed. One press officer for Xianglu told this reporter the company was not aware of the meeting.

To some observers, mainstream accounts of the denouement failed to take into account the more recent calculations of the Xiamen government. It bore the brunt of the blame for the clash of petrochemical and property development to begin with, and was burned by street protests six months beforehand. Thus it had little alternative but to lay wide the “spoken road of public opinion”, as the Xiamen Evening News phrased it, on publishing the outside assessment earlier this month. Xiameners seized on the opportunity to sound off, but local leaders were much better prepared for it this time. Indeed for many months, company and media sources inform this reporter, city bosses have been open to the possibility of sacrificing GDP figures for popularity points – by trying to convince Xianglu to move. Their ultimate goal in December was to maintain stability on the ground while mustering a sufficient public mandate (one way or another) to kick the issue back to Beijing. Said the Beijing-based journalist covering the case: “They definitely wanted to push the pressure back upon Beijing.”

The Xiamen government did a good deal to modulate the volume of public debate over the assessment during the public review period, at the behest of several diktats from central authorities to safeguard social stability. Xiamen propaganda authorities barred Xianglu from releasing a statement in the company’s defense both online and at the forum, well-placed company and media sources alleged, for fear it would fan popular ire (Southern Weekly agreed to post the statement on its Web site). And though it made claims to the contrary, the city government had apparently consented to netizen demands and authorized a short-lived poll on the project on its official portal Xiamen Net – which showed 55,000 against it and 3,000 for. While online ballot-stuffing was a problem, as the government claimed, journalistic sources contended that the main reason the poll was suspended was because of standing orders from the Central Publicity (nee Propaganda) Department not to conduct referenda-style votes on public flashpoints. Xiamen was reminded of those orders the day after the poll was launched, they said.

After the forum, one CCTV news magazine program requested clips including sound to use in its coverage of the story two weekends ago, one director of the program tells this reporter. But Xiamen propaganda officials told him the city never aired talkie footage itself and could not provide him any. “He said they didn’t really care [about the project] at this point, as long as they don’t have to decide.”

Now, this reporter is told, the relevant central government departments are orchestrating a face-saving compromise along with company and local government bosses.

In recent days, the Xiamen deputy mayor in charge of the assessment project, Pei Jinjia, was dispatched to Beijing. Taiwanese businessman Chen You-hao, the aging founder of project owners Xianglu Group and officially the conglomerate’s “adviser”, was due back in Beijing on Thursday after spending Christmas with his family in San Francisco. He told this reporter he would fly back to Xiamen on Friday.

The Xiamen-based journalist expected a final announcement would be forthcoming from Xiamen at an appropriately quiet time, likely after New Year’s and the Xiamen International Marathon on Jan. 5. A city publicity official was less specific: “Before Spring Festival.”

[Image source: lianyue.net]

December 28, 2007 7:58 AM
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Categories: Politics, Society