October 29, 2012, by China Policy Institute
Protests in Ningbo mark the birth of a nation-wide environmental health movement
The industrious city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province has become the latest flash point for environmental activism in urban China. After weeks of small-scale protests against the planned expansion of a chemical plant in Ningbo’s northern Zhenhai district residents clashed with specialist police forces on Friday.
More than one thousand people gathered peacefully near Tianyi Square in downtown Ningbo on Saturday to protest against the expansion of the Sinopec chemical plant. While domestic media remained silent, the Hong Kong-based broadcaster Phoenix TV reported on a major police presence in downtown Ningbo and showed scenes of bystanders being arrested.
Printed leaflets that had been circulated prior to the demonstrations explained the dangers of para-xylene and made demands that chemical plants should be built at a distance of 100km away from residential areas. The leaflets also recounted previous public resistance movements through which chemical plants projects had been successfully halted in Xiamen in southern China in 2007 and in Dalian in north-eastern China in 2011.
While government-sponsored work teams assessed the opinions of affected residents just weeks before the protests, such attempts to consult citizens proved too little, too late. The surprise announcement by the Ningbo municipal government on Sunday stating that they would not be proceeding with the chemical plant expansion thus should be taken with a grain of salt.
The fact that the Mayor of Ningbo, Liu Qi, has a history of working for China’s petrochemical industry does not bode well for future dialogue. Residents have distributed leaflets which state that they are no longer willing to sacrifice their health for industrial projects that may help with the Mayor’s promotion to higher ranks.
Numerous netizens on China’s popular micro-blogging service Weibo exchanged their profile pictures with an icon of a red letter X crossing out a black letter P. The acronym PX standing for the carcinogenic para-xylene has already become the galvanizing symbol of a nation-wide environmental health movement.
While both online comments and offline actions reveal a “not in my backyard” attitude, the resistance against chemical plants producing PX therefore occurs both on a national and local level. As such, the latest developments in Ningbo signify a strong level of dissatisfaction with the state of environmental governance in China.
Both the Ningbo municipal as well as Zhejiang provincial governments have yet to show that they can act as industry regulators. The degree of air and water pollution in and around Ningbo, as documented by the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, suggests that they are not yet able to regulate polluting industries.
After temporarily halting the chemical plant project, Ningbo residents will need to consider how to institutionalise their activism. Public “strolls” have forced the municipal government to recognise their legitimate concerns. Long-term solutions to industrial pollution in Ningbo however will require the emergence of more organised environmental groups.
So far, Ningbo has mostly been known for its entrepreneurial spirit. Prior to the protests, very few young people or residents had engaged in environmentalism. Without the proliferation of environmental groups in the community, municipal and provincial level environmental pollution in the port city is likely to continue unabated.
Concerned citizens in Ningbo can learn from environmental NGOs in Shanghai and Beijing about how to engage in peaceful policy advocacy. Established Chinese environmental NGOs should also be funded by the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and charged with carrying out Environmental Impact Assessments for major industrial projects.
The birth of China’s nation-wide environmental health movement requires government officials to open up channels for information, consultation and participation, both for Chinese citizens as well as their associations.
Dr Andreas Fulda is Senior Fellow of China Policy Institute and lecturer at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.