Qidong Paper Plant Resumes Production

The paper factory at the centre of violent protests in Jiangsu at the weekend resumed production on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press:

Authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Qidong dropped plans for a waste water pipeline linked to the factory, which is located in the nearby city of Nantong, after thousands of protesters angry about pollution took to the streets last week.

[…] The water discharge project was part of a planned expansion for the Jiangsu Oji Paper Nantong Mill, which began output in early 2011 with an annual capacity of 400,000 tons, according to the company’s website.

It is unclear if the expansion will go ahead now that the sewage pipeline planned for Qidong has been cancelled.

The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch reported that the the company’s long-term plans in China may indeed be affected:

“The impact (of the suspension) on its business is almost none” because the suspension will be limited to a short period, an official said.

An industry official, however, said the latest incident “shed light on a business risk in China.” Oji Paper could review its strategy in China, industry sources said.

Oji has been expanding its presence in China and other emerging economies where it is seeing demand for its paper products rise, since having seen paper demand falter in Japan.

Although the plant is a joint venture between Oji and the city of Nantong, nationality has become a prominent theme in the backlash against it. From China Real Time Report:

In China, nationalist comments were mixed with lingering calls for further protest on Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblogging service, showing yet again the anti-Japanese sentiment still to be found in China. “How can a Japanese paper factory come and damage Chinese people’s health and our environment? How can we with our 1.3-billion population be afraid of that little Japan?” said one Weibo user claiming to be in southern Guangdong province.

“The whole nation should boycott Japanese products,” says another weibo user.

“Little Japan, get out of my country!” said a third, based in Jiangsu province.

Online users also called for continued efforts against Oji paper itself. A search for the phrase “boycott Nepia” – the brand name of a tissue that Oji sells in China – turned up more than 100,000 posts Monday morning. ”Please don’t use Nepia anymore and kick it back to Japan,” said one Weibo user using the name Wang Xiaosai.

Forbes’ Jack Perkowski hailed the episode, writing that “environmentalism has arrived as a positive force for change in the country” and rightly highlighting China’s shortage of clean water. But as @桔子树小窝 (“Little Tangerine Tree Monkey”) pointed out in a post translated by Tea Leaf Nation, the pipeline’s cancellation will not prevent pollution from the plant:

When I realize that people either start jumping for joy or start slamming people left and right, I felt hopeless for our times.

[…] Basically, the long and short of it is that Nantong doesn’t want Oji Paper to dump its wastewater into the Yangtze River, so they want to build a pipeline to drain the wastewater into the sea. But the people of Qidong are unhappy that wastewater from some other part of the province is going into their backyard.

So the Qidong residents “went for a walk” (散步, an euphemism for street protests). As a result, Nantong shelved the pipeline. Please note that the pipeline is now shelved, but the factory remains open. So as of now…the factory continues to pump wastewater into the river, as usual.

In a Global Times op-ed, Fudan lecturer Daniel Shen made the same point, blaming the protests on the spread of “fragmented information” online and the local government’s failure to fill in the blanks.

People who participated in the protest should at least have known that the paper factory was already operating in 2011 and the waste water was being dumped into the Yangtze River after it was processed to meet the disposal requirement. […]

In fact, if the public can put more of their passion and energy toward researching these questions, their supervision of the government can become more effective. This is something that stripping off the local mayor’s shirt cannot achieve.

As to the government, it must learn how to communicate with the public. Currently, local governments in China often choose to either show a hard-line stance on protests or take the easy route by unconditionally accepting the public’s demand.

But neither way is effective, despite different reactions from the public. Adopting a hard-line stance on public protests is not only wrong but also stupid, while an unconditional compromise only shows how lazy, incompetent and irresponsible a government is.

Also at Global Times, media commentator Peng Xiaoyun suggested that officials avoid these pitfalls by ensuring proper public participation from the start:

The government should open up its policymaking process for public participation, building up a representative system that allows the citizens to approve its projects. A good example can be found in Panyu, Guangdong Province, where local residents have also been taking a stand against a garbage incinerator project. But unlike what happened in Shifang and Qidong, the petition in Panyu is now undergoing a positive transition from a traditional street demonstration to a professional lobby.

This is because local residents and the government have established a representative mechanism that enables effective public participation in policymaking. For instance, local residents elect their representatives with professional knowledge on this issue. The representatives would then be invited to bring the issue to the government’s work conference for negotiation. The public will also be informed of this process.

The fate of local projects shouldn’t depend on the whim of either local leaders or angry protestors, but experts and professionals. The government should stop shouldering all the responsibilities and instead invite the public to help. This actually can be beneficial to the government as it won’t have to take all the blame if a project goes wrong.

Sharing responsibilities with the public will also help boost the development of a civil society, as people will become more capable in managing their own community’s affairs.

Tang Jun, a social policy researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also stressed the importance of communication and obtaining local consent while talking to China Daily:

“Some local governments failed to release enough information about projects before construction began,” Tang said. “They should let the public discuss the issues from the beginning so the public knows more about the projects, dispelling their concerns.”

Tang also said that closing all possibly polluting manufacturing industries would improve the environment, but it’s not practical.

“A large proportion of the country’s population now works in manufacturing,” he said.

The broad consensus in favour of peacefully pre-empting protests shows recognition of the high stakes in adapting economic development to public concerns. Failure to do so threatens the unwritten contract between government and people, suggests Rob Schmitz on American Public Media’s Marketplace:

Years ago, as China stood on the precipice of an era of unbridled economic growth, its leadership made a deal with the people: you don’t challenge our authority, we give you a better quality of life. For the Chinese, ‘better quality of life’ used to mean the freedom to make money.

Not anymore, says U.C. Irvine China historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: They’re not willing to accept the idea that being able to buy more stuff at the store means your quality of life is improving if you’re worried about the pollution levels of the water you drink, if you’re worried about the quality of the air you breathe, if you’re worried about whether your children will grow up in a decent environment.