Public storm in Dalian

The triumph of protests against a Chinese chemical plant conceals sinister truths: from officials to activists, everyone is ignoring the rules, says Tang Hao.

As Typhoon Meihua battered China’s east coast in early August, it also whipped up a public storm: a dyke protecting China’s largest manufacturer of paraxylene (PX) – a chemical used to make polyester products – was washed away, bringing the plant’s existence to the attention of the local population and triggering public safety fears. Over 10,000 residents of the north-eastern city of Dalian gathered in front of the municipal government building to express opposition to the project, demanding the plant be moved and the full details made public. 

Following the uproar, Dalian authorities ordered the managers of the Fujia Dahua facility immediately to halt production and relocate their plant: the public campaign had concluded with the government bowing to public opinion – on the surface, a triumph. But the whole case highlights how, in the absence of strong rule of law, China’s environmental management has taken the road of what I call “interaction without rules”. This brings its own set of problems. 

On environmental issues, “interaction without rules” normally goes through three stages: first, local interest groups and local governments push ahead with a polluting project in violation of environmental regulations. Second, local people spontaneously organise mass protests against the project in question, an activity supported by neither law nor policy. And third, in response to the threat to social stability created by the protests, local government halts the project – again, breaching laws. At every stage, the existing rules are lightly cast aside by all participants. 

Take the Dalian case as an example: available material shows that construction of the PX project violated regulations. This major polluter is located just 20 kilometres from the city centre – closer than is permitted by government standards. And the plant started production before the environmental authorities had even authorised trial operations. These serious breaches of process should themselves have led to severe sanctions, but thanks to local government support, the project quietly went ahead, out of public sight. 

During the protests that followed, exaggerated claims about the dangers of PX spread like wildfire, while online videos show the demonstrations were more unruly than those against a waste incinerator in Panyu, Guangdong, two years ago, for example. 

Then, in the third stage, the Dalian authorities ruled that the facility must move – again without following due legal process or properly attributing responsibility, and leaving the taxpayers to foot the astronomical costs of relocation. As with the original decision to build the plant, the local government’s resolution to move it was not the result of due legal and administrative procedures, and there was no effective public participation or supervision.   

We have seen many such cases in China in recent years. BASF’s Methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) plant – the world’s largest – near the sensitive Three Gorges reservoir; PetroChina’s ethylene plant in Pengzhou, Sichuan; another paraxylene factory in Xiamen, in the east coast province of Fujian: all of these were heavy chemical projects with serious pollution risks, all were initiated without public or environmental oversight – and all resulted in public opposition. 

When local governments use unconventional methods to build polluting projects, the public are forced to resort to unconventional means to protect their own interests. This kind of social interaction makes the management of environmental issues an even knottier task.

First of all, where local interest groups ignore existing regulations, they challenge the rule of law. These cases tend to involve local, state-owned enterprises or private businesses building polluting projects in breach of regulations with the tacit consent of the local government. This points to serious erosion of the authority of environmental law and environmental-protection officials. This erosion is often linked with corruption, which destroys trust between people and government, and can lead to social discontent and crisis. The disregard of the rules not only makes environmental issues more complex, but also affects government legitimacy and social stability.  

Secondly, where there is “interaction without rules”, local interest groups become even more brazen in their pursuit of economic benefit, leading to greater environmental problems. Currently, an alliance between local interest groups and local government is forming localised “growth machines”. These interest groups care only about their own development plans and group interests, and have control of the local economy. They are often driven to break free of the restrictions of state law and policy – and sacrificing the environmental rights of ordinary citizens is not even an issue. The Dalian PX project was quietly started beyond the reaches of public supervision. This kind of furtive action demonstrates that local government and interest groups are acting deliberately and in full knowledge of the threat to public health posed by their projects. 

Third, many members of the public, seeing that environmental management processes have been ignored during the construction of a polluting project, are forced to move beyond normal modes of political expression in order to protect their interests. The protests in Dalian can be considered a kind of mass action – a gathering of a large number of people in a particular place, without organisation, in response to a particular stimulus or influence. For the Chinese people and government – neither of which is familiar with the rules of mass action – the growth in these types of protests points to social instability as well as rising costs of social management. One possibility is that "interaction without rules" between local government, local interest groups and the public will increase unpredictable social acts, and in those circumstances there is no way for proper environmental management to proceed. 

But there is another possible outcome. If, during this process, local interest groups, government and people can reach a consensus on improving the social system, a foundation for comprehensive environmental management can be established. Positive interaction could solve the issue of environmental management at its roots. 

The evolution of the Taiwanese environmental protection movement provides a successful example. During the 1960s, years of drought and salinisation led to a shortage of water for industrial development in the Gaoping River basin. Local government set to work on long term water-resource development, but plans to create a reservoir at Meinong triggered large-scale public opposition in the Gaoxiong region, and for a period relations between the people and government were tense. After the formation of the Gaoping Protection Green Alliance, however, proposals for better management of rivers and ecological restoration – rather than just construction of a reservoir – were put forward, and the government followed the advice. 

Between 1961 and 2004, the movement went through five stages of development: formation of an agenda, confrontation, dialogue and communication, participation and cooperation and, lastly, propagation of best practices. Long-term methods for managing local water resources were established. The Gaoping campaign is now a model for joint environmental management by government and people. 

We can spot similar positive elements in China’s environmental movement. Despite the gulf of understanding between the people and the government, the protests in Dalian still followed the rules of peaceful, non-violent protest. During the demonstrations, there were constant, spontaneous calls for order to be maintained, and reminders to participants not to act or speak too radically, so that interaction would be allowed to continue. Similar scenes were witnessed during the march against Xiamen PX in late 2007 and protests against a waste-incinerator in Guangzhou in 2009. Just how important public opinion is to local governments such as those in Dalian and Xiamen is reflected in how they handled the situation. Overall, in most public environmental campaigns, the public is better at respecting and acting in accordance with the law than local government.  

Public campaigns are one way for the middle classes to appeal for social reform. In Taiwan, many campaigns sprung up at the same time – in the 1980s, movements emerged against crime, pornography and nuclear power, as well as in support of environmental protection and consumer rights. These campaigns do not aim to overthrow the existing system, but to reform one part of society. Meanwhile on the mainland, factors including economic and educational development; public ideological awareness; government tolerance; and the appearance of new social action networks and organisers mean that public campaigns are also on the rise – including environmental movements. 

We can expect these campaigns to be a long-term trend that develops in parallel with the growth of the middle classes. Experience from environmental campaigns in places such as Taiwan shows it is the public who push forward the environmental agenda, but ultimately the spark for positive interaction and system reform needs to come from the government.  

Tang Hao is associate professor at South China Normal University, a Fulbright scholar and a columnist. 

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