April 8, 2013, by Editor

Beyond NIMBYism: China’s Environment Social Mobilization

Written by PENG Lin and Wu Fengshi.

The year 2012 marked the rise of social mobilization against industrial pollution and hazardous projects in China. In Qidong, Shifang and Ningbo, angry citizens took to the streets and voiced their opinions against construction projects. Most of these social mobilizations resembled the pattern of Not-In-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) movements observed in Western democracies since the 1960s. However, these protests in China differ from NIMBYism in that they became more confrontational and even violent very quickly, yet did not lead to any long-term policy change after the storm of vandalism and resistance.

Meanwhile, a new kind of environment social mobilization is emerging, particularly in the sector of urban solid waste treatment in Guangdong province. It distinguishes itself from NIMBY movements by higher level of organization, professionalization and networking. Though initiated by self-interested urban residents in an ad hoc fashion in the beginning, these anti-incinerator campaigns transformed into more sophisticated policy advocacy and self-conscious organizing with the support from veteran environmentalists and established environmental NGOs. The campaigns eventually transcended from community-bonded goals to the general pursuit of public interests and promoting public participation in environmental governance.

Radicalization of NIMBY Protests in China

In 2012, three large scale protests broke out in medium-level cities within just four months, and all escalated to violent clashes between protesters and local police forces. In Shifang, a city located 50 km north to Chengdu in Sichuan province, the protests and clashes caused a large number of injuries and casualties among the protesters. In the city of Qidong, Jiangsu province, just outside of the metropolitan Shanghai, protesters stormed the building of the local government and assaulted a vice mayor. In Ningbo, a wealthy prefectural level municipality in northern Zhejiang province, local residents protested against a petroleum project by marching in the streets and in front of official buildings. This protest, though it started with a high level of contention, took a relatively peaceful turn shortly after thanks to numerous calls for “rational protesting” on Weibo and other social media outlets. Nevertheless, it still led to physical conflict between the protesters and the police force.

The surge in social resistance against industrial pollution in China can be generally explained by the ambitious development stimulus plan launched by the Chinese government in 2008 in order to boost economic growth by massive expansion of infrastructures and industrial projects. In addition, there are a few direct and specific causes. For example, citizens in Shifang, Qidong and Ningbo were, to a degree, more provoked by the secrecy over information of environmental risks and the lack of public participation in decision making. In these cities, as in many other places of China, local residents were excluded from the planning and EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) processes of major industrial and development projects. Information related to such projects and particularly the results of EIA and potential harm are kept inaccessible or hardly available to the public. All three cities rank among the upper-middle in terms of economic indicators, and local residents are relatively doing well. In recent years, the growing public knowledge and awareness of health and environmental risks have become an important impetus for collective action against local governments’ decisions on industrial projects. In Shifang and Ningbo, activists warned the local residents that the chemical and petroleum plants under construction could cause cancer. In Qidong, protesters claimed that the waste water piping system of a local paper manufacturer would contaminate the drinking water source of their city. These narratives became an extremely powerful repertoire of social mobilization, rallying locals across all walks of work onto the streets.

Another, relatively new, common feature of these environmental protests was the high degree of violence. Violent escalation of petitions or protests is not exceptional in China’s rural areas in recent years, but it is rare in the cities. The level of violence in the urban environment protests in 2012 was unseen before. From Shifang to Ningbo, local authorities took the hardline to suppress the protests, leading to bloody clashes. However, all these conflicts ended with the sudden and dramatic back-down of local governments. Shortly after the violent clashes erupted, authorities of all three cities chose to suspend and even abandon the projects opposed by local residents.

Guangzhou Anti-incinerator Movement and the Birth of Eco Canton: From Petition, Protest to Policy Advocacy

Prior to 2012, another NIMBY movement against an incinerator has been sustained for three years in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. During the process, local petitioners gradually transformed the collective effort and finally chose a different way to express their discontent and articulate exactly what they want. In the beginning, the residents of a typical new urban complex in Panyu district, learned about the plan to build a solid waste incinerator near their homes, and decided to take action, organizing various forms of sit-in, petition and peaceful demonstration to prevent the project going ahead. Soon after the first petition in early 2009, some local activists, allied with local scholars and media, conducted field research and publicized the physical and psychological suffering of the residents of Likeng village, right next to a waste refill and incinerating facility on the outskirts of Guangzhou, who had struggled for their health and property rights for over a decade in vein. By exposing Likeng villagers’ suffering, a more vulnerable and marginal group of victims, the Panyu petitioners gained more energy and moral incentive to fight against the pro-incineration alliance formed by technocrats and policy-makers.

More importantly, the empathy for Likeng villagers that Panyu activists found among themselves triggered the transformation of the movement into a bigger cause. Introducing new victims and re-framing the issue raised public awareness of the seriousness of waste treatment and sustainable ways of life. And, expanding the scope of the campaign increased its legitimacy. From the beginning of their resistance, Panyu petitioners faced enormous moral pressure from local authorities who accused them of being selfish and defending narrow self-interests at the expense of the wider public. By extending their concerns to victims in rural areas and even the general public, the petitioners and the whole anti-incinerator movement instantly gained moral support and convinced a broader audience that they were fighting for others and a public good.

As the movement continued, some leading activists began to consider the idea of building a professionalized organization to safeguard the temporary halt of governmental decisions and push forward long-term policy changes. In early 2012, an organization named Eco Canton was successfully registered. The birth of Eco Canton is of notable political significance for the local and even national environmental movement. It signaled the convergence of two routes of social resistance to environmental degradation: one, via self-limiting non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and the other, via spontaneous protests.

The transformation from a spontaneous NIMBY movement against a hazardous facility to a professionalized NGO with the conscious pursuit of policy advocacy is an unprecedented phenomenon in China’s environmental movement. Why did it happen when environment protests in other places became more confrontational and violent? The most important reason is the overall maturity of the green NGO sector. As the most developed civil society sector in China, environmental NGOs have accumulated the necessary knowledge and organizational resources to support grassroots protests and campaigns. Some leading actors such as Friend of Nature (FON) and the Nature University in Beijing have been following the issue of urban solid waste treatment and building relevant social networks since the mid-2000s. The anti-incineration movement in Guangzhou benefited significantly from the networking and preparatory work by Beijing-based NGOs from the very beginning. Activists from Beijing made an important contribution to the growth of this local movement by sharing technological data, experience and tactics of petitions and social mobilization, and even direct participation. At the stage of organization building, external input and the power of networking became even more apparent and important, including funding and human resources.

As exemplified by three major protests and Eco Canton, the environmental movement in China reached a new point of departure in 2012. On one hand, confrontational tactics and open resistance against potentially hazardous projects will continue to take place if local authorities keep locking up information and the decision-making process. On the other, self-limiting policy advocacy driven by NGOs and organized efforts has sustained its growth. Both trends will co-exist in China. If and only if they continue to converge, the environmental movement will have a better chance to gain wide public support and lead long-term policy changes.

PENG Lin is a post-doctoral fellow and Wu Fengshi an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Posted in Sustainable Development