Xiamen PX: a turning point?

The halting of a controversial petrochemical project in south China was a victory for people power, writes Tang Hao. Now the country should consider the reforms it needs to enshrine public participation in law.

As ecological destruction makes an ever more significant impact on daily life in China, public participation in environmental protection has increased. The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has encouraged this trend, and regards participation as essential to solving environmental issues. In 2006 a document from China’s cabinet, the State Council, specified that public consultations must be held in cases when a project will have an impact on the public’s environmental interests. SEPA regulations state that participation is necessary for environmental impact assessments and that the publication of environmental information is a prerequisite. Many officials have offered support, verbal and written, for public participation in environmental protection.

Last month in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen (also known as Amoy), these words were put into practice. The provincial and municipal government reportedly bowed to public pressure and halted construction on a Taiwanese-invested paraxylene (PX) petrochemical plant. The project is now being moved to the southern Fujian city of Zhangzhou. Its opponents included white-collar workers, the elderly and housewives, who used a range of methods to express their opposition, from text-message campaigns, online protests, demonstrations at public hearings and letters written by academics, to marches though the streets.

This is generally considered a victory for public participation; the central government genuinely listened to environmental concerns and the Xiamen government worked to protect the city. More importantly, the events established a new type of activism, which focused on a single issue in order to change governmental habits and the law. For government officials, this will mean new rules on how they act. Cadres will be more careful to at least consider the environment. Green is a colour on the ascendant.

Outside China, the green movement has relied on public participation to grow, ultimately transforming the political sphere. The same thing seems to have happened in Xiamen. But the development of public participation in China is still unfinished, and it faces systematic obstacles. China’s environmental impact assessment law affirms the principle of public participation, but it does not lay out the process to achieve this, or regulate how government should handle public opinion. The public has no right to veto, leaving the oversight of major projects and the right to environmental information in something of a no man’s land.

These system failures have two consequences. First, they reduce the extent to which the public can participate in environmental issues. Currently, the public can only take part at a basic, everyday level. The government will encourage people to conserve water and power, but not participate at any higher level; non-governmental activity has no support. Second, the lack of public participation means the environmental crisis is allowed to continue. While the residents of Xiamen celebrate their win, other ecologically destructive projects are going ahead. Work is already underway on the eastern and central sections of the south-to-north water transfer. The project already has an opening date, but the public were not told when the work started, much less how it was approved. A nuclear plant at Rushan in Shandong has also been given the go-ahead without the consultation of the public or SEPA. Xiamen’s PX project is moving to Zhangzhou, but what do the city’s residents think of the impact there? Nobody knows. Unless the public is involved, these projects could cause major harm. A loan from the Agricultural Bank for 6.3 billion yuan (US$867 million), intended for the 10.08 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion) PX project, has been frozen – a loss that would not have been incurred if the public had been involved earlier. In other areas, projects have given rise to frequent complaints – and even “mass incidents”.

Public participation means breaking the government’s monopoly on power. This explains the current obstruction of environmental protection in China. The low-key approach to major projects and decisions betrays a lack of trust in public participation. But environmental problems do not disappear just because policy-makers ignore them. When problems become bad enough, the government is left with no choice but to respond. Great power brings great responsibility. If the government is all-powerful, it is also deemed responsible for all.

The power to make decisions on major projects should not lie with government alone, but with the public. The public will bear the consequences of any decisions made, so should not be left out of the decision-making process. Environmental awareness among the Chinese public is at an all-time high, in sharp contrast to the state of environmental governance. This leads to pressure for reform: a 2005 survey found that over 80% of Chinese citizens are aware of pollution, waste disposal and water treatment problems. There is an urgent desire for a clean, unpolluted environment.

With local governments pressing ahead with harmful projects, and the public ever less willing to accept them, Xiamen was a turning point. People want to participate, but they are coming up against systematic obstruction. An unprecedented victory in Xiamen, however, means that the public is no longer helpless; they are empowered to fight anti-environment forces. With the development of the economy and civil society, this power will only get stronger. Xiamen should not be seen as a single victory, but the start of a series of struggles. Environmental protection is not about individual wins. It is about reforms to stop these same problems arising again.

Government and business dominate environmental issues; people need stronger mechanisms to help them get involved. This will mean a switch in focus from single-issue campaigns to improvements in law and in government habits. And this requires the government and the people to work together. Mechanisms helping the interaction of the two need to be put in place as soon as possible. The government needs to stop participating as an interested party and become an arbitrator between different parties’ interests. They should publish environmental information for the benefit of the public, promote public-interest lawsuits on environmental issues and improve their relations with green NGOs, which will allow civil society to monitor environmental decision-making. At the same time, the public should keep up its determined, yet moderate, action. The public must learn how to apply maximum pressure in a calm fashion.

Turning awareness into action will always be a long and painful process, particularly in China. But the process is underway – and it shows no signs of letting up.

Tang Hao is a newspaper columnist, deputy editor of Shimin (Citizen) magazine, and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window and many other publications.