When poor farmers in Ningbo, one of China’s oldest and richest cities, barricaded a road near a controversial petrochemical refinery in October, they triggered a series of protests that ran for three days and culminated in a mass demonstration in the city’s central square. Riot police had to use tear gas and clubs to disperse an angry mob throwing bricks and bottles.
Protestors said Sinopec, which operates the refinery, colluded with local government officials to conceal incriminating health and environmental data gathered to assess a planned multi-billion dollar expansion.
The big concern was paraxylene (PX), a highly toxic chemical the facility produces for use in paints and plastics. If inhaled or absorbed through the skin, it can cause serious damage to the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys. Local residents feel certain it is responsible for a sharp rise in birth defects and cancers in the area.
Similar “mass incidents” have played out across China in recent years. It seems people are becoming better informed about industrial polluters operating with impunity in their own backyards. They are, at least, becoming more demonstrative.
Environmental protests are problematic for the Communist Party. They are not only an unwelcome exhibition of social instability amid a once-a-decade leadership transition; as they cut across class divides, they also represent an ideological reproach to a socialist regime struggling to reconsolidate its ideological authority.
Central Party officials would like to frame the problem like this: China’s burgeoning middle class, the fruit of the CCP’s economic stewardship over the past 30 years, is asserting its rights against corrupt or incompetent local officials responsible for environmental degradation.
But the same frustration has long been felt and expressed in vain by an increasingly disenfranchised agrarian and industrial working class. Rural areas have witnessed more than 100,000 protests in a decade on issues ranging from high pollution to poor healthcare, government corruption, and land theft. China’s Environment Ministry warned the State Council recently that grassroots environmental discontent has risen to alarming proportions.
Related article: New System to Produce Energy from Coal Releases 99% Less CO2
The Party knows it must act to dissipate a crisis quickly turning into a lightening-rod for other grievances, from rampant corruption to widening social inequalities.
As China’s outgoing president, Hu Jintao, prepares to step down in March, he is leaving his successor with shrewd counsel: do everything you can to make China green.
In his opening speech to the 18th Party Congress in October, Hu told fellow cadres that the Party should work hard to “reverse the trend of ecological deterioration and build a beautiful China.”
Some wonder if this is realistic after three decades of unrestrained industrialization that has left a heavy carbon haze hanging over the nation. How can China keep up high economic growth rates without energy-intensive factories and incessant urbanization? As people get wealthier, will they really embrace a green lifestyle while their climbing affluence demands more energy-guzzling, carbon-producing comforts like cars, gas water-heaters, and electric air-conditioners?
Hu thinks the growth responsible for so much pollution has also planted the seeds of a green revolution. It has expanded the middle class, and a middle class is, by nature and with a little prodding, environmentally conscious. It is an example of the circular, almost Taoist logic the Party often uses to come up with remedies—simply find a way to transform a problem into a solution.
After the global financial crisis in 2008, China ramped up efforts to implement structural changes to its economy intended to lift it up the value chain. It wants to move away from basic industry, which is heavily polluting, to an economy based on services and high-end, precision manufacturing.
Greening China seems to fit nicely into this program. Beijing thinks it will engender new service and technology industries to drive future growth, advancing scientific research and improving manufacturing processes.
Related article: China and India can Reduce Air Pollution whilst still Burning Coal
China’s current five-year development plan (2011-2015) lays out specific pollution-reduction targets. Work is already underway to cut carbon emissions by closing obsolete thermal energy plants and by promoting energy-efficient lighting, home appliances, and motor vehicles. Companies are investing heavily in low-cost solar, wind, and battery power capabilities. In November, China put its third “Environment-1” satellite into orbit to monitor ecological changes and pollution.
But for a large and still-emerging country, adopting policies to protect the environment has economic implications. Reducing pollution means shifting to cleaner manufacturing methods and technologies, which are expensive and escalate production costs, lowering the competitiveness of China’s exports on global markets. They also give rise to more anti-environmentalist lobbies opposed to carbon taxes and subsidies.
Ironically, though, Beijing may be the biggest challenge to its own green agenda. The pressure it puts on local governments to increase GDP and revenue motivates them to align their interests with big polluters, a major cause of faulty or inadequately enforced environmental laws.
Environmental reform from the top down will mean further political reform. If Beijing is to rebuild confidence in a centralized government under one-party rule, it is going to have to do more than plant 13 million trees around the capital to help block pollutants blowing in from other cities. It will have to improve transparency and accountability, especially at local levels where businesses and officials have incentives to circumvent environmental laws and override the rights of local residents. At the very least, it will have to better encourage local governments to consult meaningfully with residents on new industrial projects in their areas.
By. Paul Nash
This article orignally appeared on Diplomatic Courier - http://www.diplomaticourier.com/news/regions/brics/1344