Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Two articles on public participation in China

[Two articles on public participation and environmental protests in
China, one that was recently featured in the Earth Island Journal:
The other, below, focuses on the role and response of local governments.]

Shifang: a crisis of local rule
By Tang Hao
July 18, 2012

China's feeble public participation system is forcing people onto the
streets to protect their environmental interests, as the latest
demonstrations in the south-west show. Tang Hao reports.

"In many cities, it's the local government that wants economic
development - not the locals themselves. The benefits to the community
of more polluting factories are limited and unclear, while the
environmental harms are very real."

China has been engrossed in the mass protests in Shifang, Sichuan
province, where on the morning of July 2, locals and police clashed
during demonstrations against a planned molybdenum and copper refinery.
The next day, the government announced a halt to the project, restoring

Events at Shifang provide the latest signal of an important trend: a
widening of China's environmental movement. No longer is green
campaigning solely the work of a small elite. Ordinary people, whose
interests are at stake, are also taking to the streets.

Just a few years ago, the Chinese environmental lobby comprised a
coterie of enthusiastic, nature-loving pioneers. Even the landmark
protests in 2004 against a string of dams on the Nu River, which would
have had a huge ecological and social impact and were eventually
shelved, were carried out by environmental NGOs, academics and media
figures, some students and a very small number of locals.

More recently, however, concerns over chemical plants in the coastal
cities of Xiamen and Dalian and - this month - in Shifang, have sparked
mass protests involving 10,000 or more people. This is a marked change.
Such protests involve ordinary, local people, have arisen and been
resolved in very similar ways and are becoming more frequent and intense.

Although, in each case, these protests have been quickly resolved, the
root problems remain. The projects that triggered them have the legally
required environmental clearances, so why the political and social
turmoil? Why do local governments exclude local people from the
decision-making process? And why do residents resort to street protests
and borderline violent methods to make their point? Why do these cases
keep happening? Will these protests bring about positive reforms, or the
opposite? To put it simply: what do environmental street protests mean
for China?

The Shifang case reflects a crisis of local governance common in China
today. In many cities, it's the local government that wants economic
development - not the locals themselves. The benefits to the community
of more polluting factories are limited and unclear, while the
environmental harms are very real. The so-called environmental impact
assessment process is, increasingly, a mere formality, with expert
assessments replacing negotiations between groups with differing
interests. With interested parties excluded, local governments use the
assessments to provide scientific backing for projects.

But science cannot replace democracy. Without the participation of
interested parties, no conclusion - no matter how scientific or
authoritative - will be convincing. Ordinary people have extremely
limited opportunities to work within the system, and so the use of
unconventional methods such as street protests is inevitable. The
system's inability to balance interests and allow participation
generates direct confrontation.

Environmental street protests have a wider significance: they are
becoming part of China's overall social movement. In some parts of the
country, there is a comprehensive crisis of local governance, expressed
in the varying degrees of failure to provide justice in environmental
and law-enforcement spheres. Chinese citizens have attempted to do
something about this, but there are very limited channels for them to
participate in politics and make their voices heard, bar social campaigning.

Environmental activism has already developed into one part of China's
expanding social movement. If the Shifang protestors had been pursuing
social justice as well as environmental justice, the number of
participants would have been even higher. Many of the protestors were
only indirectly affected by the project, or imagined they would be
affected, and there was a strong turnout by young protestors.

These street protests make direct and fixed demands. In the past,
Chinese environmentalists have been criticised for choosing soft targets
and moderate strategies, for being more "rational" than "tough". The
result has been that when large state-owned enterprises have been
involved in environmental incidents - such as the pollution of the
Songhua River in November 2005 caused by explosions at a petrochemical
plant in Jilin, or the blast and oil spill in Dalian, north-east China,
in the summer of 2010 - they have avoided speaking out or taking action.

But local street protests use more radical methods. In Shifang, some
demonstrators broke through police lines and attacked government
buildings. These are actions born of the circumstances. Few people enjoy
resolving problems through violence, but other routes to participation
and expression are blocked, while the system appears to allow for
successful street protests. Demonstrations in Xiamen, Dalian and Shifang
all produced fairly positive outcomes.

Just like the environmental movement itself, local governments' ideas
and methods for handling these incidents are as yet unformed. Stability
does not mean the absence of political conflict or social movements, but
the state working to bring that conflict within the system. But,
regrettably, local governments often exclude interested parties from the
decision-making process, and fail to communicate when conflict worsens.
Often, they escalate the conflict. This is clear in the forceful methods
some authorities have used to preserve stability, suppressing voices of
opposition and branding opponents enemies.

One example is the way in which local governments tend to blame street
protests triggered by environmental concerns on "small gangs" or
"ill-informed members of the public", acting on "ulterior motives".
These are usually false accusations which make the protestors out to be
either wrongheaded, or fools who have been incited to cause trouble, and
can only result in more opposition. Moreover, this approach provides the
local government with an excuse to mobilise the police, which does
nothing to solve the problem. Both sides use more extreme methods and
the situation escalates.

With major problems in the structures and processes of local governance,
there are no clear and mutually accepted rules of discussion. This was
true in the cases in Xiamen, Dalian and Shifang, at all stages of the
process - the initial decision-making, the growth of opposition,
interaction between the public and officials, worsening conflict and the
ultimate resolution.

In the end, street protests, bordering on violence, were used as a means
of expression and resolution. Thankfully, there was no bloodshed in
Shifang, but there are no guarantees that will be the case next time
around. Before we see serious violence, before true enmity takes root,
we need a fresh start for China's social governance.

Hard decisions must be taken to reform the political system, to face up
to the people's desire for political participation, to use methods such
as democratic elections to rein in local government's untrammelled
economic development. If they are not, then we face social collapse
caused by pollution, the yawning wealth gap, a lack of public services
and pessimism. The growth of environmental protests is a final warning.
It is time for social reform.

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

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