Public mistrust on PX is justified by history of corporate secrecy

China’s PX protestors are accused of overreacting, but their anger is based on a long string of pollution cover-ups

In late March 2014, street clashes hit the southern Chinese city of Maoming during public protests against a new paraxylene (PX) factory. By the end of the month, the city government announced it would respect the wishes of the majority. The PX project was shelved.  

Seven years have passed since the first PX protests in the port city of Xiamen in 2007, along with a succession of similar cases. The pattern is familiar: local governments work to attract PX projects, residents protest and force a halt to the schemes. But this time there has also been a number of criticisms of the public opposition to these plants. The criticism has been along three lines: first, that the protests are unecessary, because PX projects are neither very toxic nor dangerous. Second, that the objections are selfish and only reflect the interests of a minority, and will simply shift pollution to another city. And third, that these protests are not as spontaneous as they appear – vested interests are using the public as a tool.

Such views became common online after the Maoming protests and have influenced both public and government views of the protestors. There is therefore a need for clarification.

The public may be wrong to view PX projects as toxic, carcinogenic and dangerous. But is that really their fault? It is not the responsibility of citizens to research chemical plants being forced upon them – it is the government’s job to explain. When secrecy surrounds a project’s inception, environmental impact assessment and construction, it is entirely legitimate for the public to worry.

Moreover, these judgements are based on past experience: overseas PX plants might not cause pollution, but it is hard to be so confident about a Chinese-managed plant. The opposition to PX arises from public mistrust of both government and business.

As for whether the nimby movement is selfish, it’s arguable that the wider public interest is made up of many smaller interests. If we take away specific selfish concerns, we have no public interest left. Similarly, by protecting local and individual interests, we protect the greater public good.

To argue that vested interests are manipulating the public into protesting is too much of a conspiracy theory. It belittles the public intelligence, and by extension, citizens’ actions. It shows misunderstanding or malice, an unwarranted questioning and mistrust of the public, which harks back to authoritarian times. If we don’t recognise the people’s right to protect their own interests, what public interest is there to speak of?

An article in the People’s Daily, titled “PX Concerns”, said that one cause of opposition is that that members of the public do not realise how they themselves benefit from PX factories. But statistics show that, of 24 billion yuan in taxes paid by Maoming’s petrochemical sector in 2013, only 1.5 billion went to Maoming itself. Yet local residents take on the pollution, the diminished quality of life and the potential dangers. Why shouldn’t they protest?

Mistrust of the system

Nimby protests arise not from public failings, but from public mistrust of government and businesses.

Citizens don’t just worry that they aren’t getting the full story about PX plants – they mistrust the entire system. They do not think the company will run the plant safely, and they do not trust the government to exercise strong oversight and uphold the law. The mistrust is so strong that a project which would be accepted anywhere else in the world cannot be built in China. Government and business actions in the past show such presumed guilt is not wholly unreasonable.

The people’s mistrust is expressed as supposition, rumour and protest. Social media provide a venue for protest to spread, amplifying that mistrust. As events accelerate posts on microblogs, forums and blogs increase exponentially, and in extreme cases the people take to the streets.

The government’s mistrust of the people is evident from the way microblogs fall silent and social media posts are deleted, all to prevent the spread of opposition. There are even reports of authorities forcing petrochemical workers, civil servants, students and teachers to sign no-protest commitments. From the start of the Maoming protests to the time of writing, I have seen huge quantities of online material deleted – both specific details of the opposition, and online comment. It is next to impossible to find any valuable information.  

And without the necessary information, what reason is there for trust? There is a link between internet censorship and the street protests. Cracking down on information exacerbates the situation by placing the government and the people on opposite sides, making radical action more likely.

Political support for an industrial project comes as much from the perverse incentives created by the assessment system for officials as the views of local government. Attracting major projects and boosting the local economy is an important way for officials to demonstrate competence and earn promotions. But this means any movement reducing economic growth is treated as opposition to the local government.

Transparency needed

Without trust, the three players – government, business and the public – inevitably fall into negative patterns of interaction. To change this, the stronger parties – government and businesses – must work in the short term to create trust by committing to be fair and uphold their promises. In the long term, we need new systems.

Firstly, strict implementation of environmental impact assessments is essential. Nimby protests are closely linked with government behaviour, particularly public policy decisions. The fairness of policy making and implementation must be ensured. We need transparency when decisions are being made, when environmental impact assessments are being carried out and when construction is under way. All legal procedures must be followed closely, and vested interests not be allowed to interfere in policy decisions.

Secondly, we need an effective method of public participation. We must strengthen communication between government and the people, solicit public views, protect residents’ right to know and participate and create norms for public participation. This will prevent disorderly behaviour and loss of political control.

Finally, we need to establish multilateral mechanisms for communication. The government should have a procedure for responding to questions from the public, without censoring the truth. Public education work should be emphasised in similar cases, so the public can understand what a PX project involves. Routes for the public to participate should be provided, and the opinion of third party experts given weight. When necessary, environmental compensation should be paid to residents, after effective, open discussion.

Such positive social mechanisms need to be built on a foundation of trust. In Taiwan, the nimby movement has been active for over 30 years, but today it rarely takes to the streets. Sustained public pressure has forced the establishment of positive tools for communication between the people, government and business, better publicity about projects and improved oversight. It is not just the government that must learn from Taiwan – so too should the public and business.