Environmental Protests a “Sign of Unequal Society”

While Kunming authorities won praise for their handling of demonstrations against a nearby PX plant early this month, subsequent episodes have driven them to unusual and illegal measures against further protest. Real-name registration requirements and other restrictions were imposed on the sale of printing services, face masks and even, according to rumor, white T-shirts, before being withdrawn in the face of public opposition and mockery. From Yueran Zhang at Tea Leaf Nation:

While attempting to appease citizens by using all available channels for public communication, authorities have also been vigilantly extinguishing any spark that could potentially grow into an uncontrollable fire. The orders issued to stores in the Kunming area were not only intended to restrict the use of face masks as a form of symbolic resistance, but also to prevent the printing of materials used to mobilize for collective action. Furthermore, the upcoming China-South Asia Expo is set to take place in Kunming from June 6 to 10. Before and during any major event in China, stability maintenance is regarded as the top priority. The Olympics in 2008, the World Expo in 2009 and the 18th Congress in 2012 are all classic examples.

The orders, once exposed to the public, have been questioned and ridiculed. The Beijing Times (@京华时报) pointed out that the issuing of the orders is not only unreasonable but illegal. According to the Administrative License Law, government agencies beneath the provincial level may not establish any real-name registration system. In a tweet which was reposted more than 2,000 times, the People’s Daily tagged the mayor of the Kunming City, asking him for an explanation. Ironically, the account of the Kunming mayor was set up in early May to deal with the oil refinery dispute. [Source]

A Southern Weekly article on the restrictions, translated at East By Southeast, reported that local authorities had claimed that face mask registration was imposed to halt H7N9 bird flu:

According to a 5/26 Yunnan Information News report, on 5/25 the Anning City Industry and Commerce Bureau Chief Yao Jingwei told a reporter that the face mask registration was a temporary measure to prevent the spread of avian flu and a convenient way to keep data on disease transmission.

[…] According to a Southern Weekend 5/21 online report, from the discovery of H7N9 Avian flu to the present day, China’s Health Ministries and Bureaus have reported 130 cases of H7N9, but none of the cases was diagnosed in Yunnan and no evidence of the H7N9 avian flu virus has been found in Yunnan. Also on 5/20, the day before Anning City’s Industry and Commerce Bureau issued the notice, Jiangsu province, Zhejiang province and many other provinces and cities officially ended their previously implemented preventative measures towards avian flu because flu transmission had considerably subsided. [Source]

Somewhat similarly, Chengdu police claimed on May 4th that the site of a planned protest against an oil refinery had been closed for an earthquake drill.

Global Times noted that this was just the latest in a slew of real-name registration policies that have caused “real headaches”. Regarding the protests themselves, as in the past, the newspaper’s coverage stressed the importance of heading off unrest with timely transparency and public consultation:

Dong Zhengwei, a lawyer based in Beijing, told the Global Times that both environmental protection law and the Constitution stipulate that residents should be able to access information that is related to their daily lives, however there are no regulations specifying conditions permitting an EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] to be made confidential.

“If the first protest on May 4 was irrationally triggered by a lack of knowledge of oil refineries and PX,” Xiao said, “The second was caused more by the government’s secretive attitude.”

[…] “It is not that people don’t understand the importance of PX. They are not satisfied with the way the government has been dealing with the problem and they want to be heard,” Zhang Yiwu, a sociology professor from Peking University, told the Global Times. [Source]

But chinadialogue’s Tang Hao argued that the root of the problem lies deeper, in a fundamental power imbalance—occasional popular victories like the collapse of the face mask registration scheme notwithstanding—which may pose a serious threat to social stability.

The rise of the nimby movement is generally blamed on failings of Chinese environmental governance. But the differing strength of different interest groups is the real cause. That imbalance allows the powerful to use the system to their advantage, while the weak resort to less rational or even illegal forms of protest.

[…] China’s circumstances mean nimby campaigns sometimes succeed, but not because the public interest is being properly considered during the political decision-making process. Nor are they a solution for that failure. In nimby movements, with disorganised participants, the demands of the weak can be blown up to the extent they pose a threat to social stability.

The greater the impact of the protests, the more likely government is to pay attention. But there is no consideration of which group deserves to get what – only of maintaining social stability.

[…] With an imbalance of power and decision makers consciously or otherwise shirking their duties, the nimby problem may be insoluble. There’s plenty of polluting public infrastructure that can’t simply be cancelled – incinerators, sewage treatment plants, power stations must be built in someone’s backyard. If there is no effective system for balancing interests and forming consensus, problems will just be shuffled around, and China will have neither social harmony nor scientific development. [Source]

Or, as Danwei’s Jeremy Goldkorn put it (from 40:20) in a recent Sinica podcast:

Whatever! … Everybody’s all ‘ah, democracy! The people are standing up!’ … PX seems to be the one thing you’re allowed to protest about … and then the protest is over and they move the plant 10 kilometers away and poison a bunch of peasants who don’t have Weibo …. But, you know, I remain optimistic. [Source (via Michael McDermott)]

For more on the limits of China’s environmental protests, see ‘PX Protests, Hollow Victories and Forced Demolitions‘ on CDT.