Industrial Projects to Require Risk Assessments to Stem Protests

With large-scale protests over environmental concerns increasing in size and frequency, China’s leaders are under pressure to find ways to ease public concerns about industrial pollution. On the sidelines of the 18th Party Congress, the country’s environmental chief announced a new plan that would require assessments of the social impact of new industrial projects. From AP:

The Chinese government will require that future industrial projects include assessments of their risk to social stability, following several large protests around the country over pollution, a top official said Monday.

The government will also increase transparency and public involvement in decisions regarding large projects with potential environmental impact, Minister for Environmental Protection Zhou Shengxian told reporters on the sidelines of a Communist Party congress at which a new generation of leaders will be installed.

Zhou acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue but said it was natural for such incidents to occur as living standards rise. ‘‘I think it is inevitable that when a society is developed to a certain level, certain phenomena will naturally arise, this is regular. For China … we are now in a sensitive period especially in terms of environmental issues,’’ he said. ‘‘At the same time we are beginning to see a phenomenon called ‘not in my backyard.’’’

Pollution has become a major cause of unrest in China as members of the rising middle class become more outspoken against environmentally risky projects near them. The demonstrations are a reminder to the incoming generation of leaders that they face a public increasingly unwilling to accept environmental and health hazards as an inevitable consequence of breakneck, unbridled economic growth.

Protests over environmental pollution have been increasing at an average rate of 29% per year, according to official statistics. Just before the opening of the Party Congress, protests in Ningbo against a chemical plant caused the government to back down on plans for development. China Daily has more on the government’s goals for the new program:

Zhou said that central authorities require all large projects to undergo stringent risk assessments and his ministry will make concerted efforts with other government agencies to ensure that the requirement is fully honored.

“I believe if all measures are thoroughly followed, the number of emergencies and mass incidents will be reduced,” he said.

Official statistics are not immediately available, but Yang Zhaofei of the China Society of Environmental Sciences, was quoted by the Beijing News as saying on Oct 26 that the number of environmental “mass protests” has been growing by 29 percent annually in recent years.

Last week, the New York Times reported on the impact of these protests on China’ business climate:

China’s economic boom over the last three decades has depended overwhelmingly on a build-at-all-costs investment strategy in which pollution concerns, the preservation of neighborhoods and other such questions have been swept aside. But that approach is starting to backfire, posing one of the biggest challenges for the new generation of Chinese policy makers who will take over at the Communist Party Congress, which starts on Thursday.

New investment projects used to be seen as the best way to keep the Chinese public happy with jobs and rising incomes, assuring social stability — a paramount goal of the Communist Party — while frequently enriching local politicians as well.

But from Shifang in the west to the port of Ningbo in the east, where a week of sometimes violent protests forced the suspension on Oct. 28 of plans to expand a chemical plant, more projects are running into public hostility. In many cases, they are running into opposition not just from farmers who do not want their houses and fields confiscated, but also from a growing middle class fearful that new factories will lead to more environmental damage.

In response to this and other worries about the economy, a number of influential officials and business leaders in China have stepped up their calls for changes aimed at increasing the efficiency of investment and simultaneously shifting the country toward a greater reliance on consumption.

The New York Times report includes a map of recent major protests around China. Read more about environmental protests and industrial pollution in China, and about several recent protest movements against paraxylene factories in local areas.