Where ‘Guanxi’ Rules – Jonathan Ansfield
Chinese politics are often not what they seem, and a recent coup by citizens in the seaport of Xiamen is a case in point. In late May, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao ordered city leaders to freeze construction of a plant slated to produce PX, a toxic chemical used in plastic and polyester, after academics and journalists raised safety concerns. Then came massive street marches. Last week a long-awaited “independent” scientific review suggested building should resume only if the city limited pollution and residential building in the area.
It may have looked like folks were being heard. In fact, according to official media sources, orders to proceed with the plant had come two months earlier from none other than Communist Party boss Hu Jintao himself. Environmental issues didn’t factor in his decree. Instead, the key issue was the plant’s owner, Taiwan’s Xianglu & Dragon Group, whose boss is a rival to (and fugitive from) the independence-minded regime in Taipei. Beijing, which still considers Taiwan a wayward province, sees any foe of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian as a friend. Hu made the call in order to buttress “cross-Strait relations” and “Taiwanese business interests,” say the sources, citing official written instructions.
The case underscores an increasingly common clash in China these days. On one side stand newly networked intellectuals, media activists and citizens; on the other, the traditional closed-door world of party-investor relations. Despite all the talk about the empowerment of ordinary Chinese, it is still guanxi — old boys’ networks — and the party’s private interests that generally carry the day. [Full Text]
UPDATE: Jonathan Ansfield adds following postscript to the story for CDT:
Hu’s is not necessarily the final word at this point. After word of interference from above circulated in October/November, there were grumblings within liberal circles. Partly as a result of that, the decision to resume construction was delayed and Xiamen was compelled to go ahead with the high-profile public airing of the assessment last week. Popular opposition could yet prevail upon Beijing and Xiamen leaders to reverse course. After all, sources say, the pishi from Hu’s office also reaffirmed that the decision to suspend construction on the PX plant on the eve of the June protests was correct for the sake — surprise, surprise — of ensuring “social stability”.