From Nuclear Plants to Land Seizures: When Protests are Successful in China

From Nuclear Plants to Land Seizures: When Protests are Successful in China
Aug 08, 2013 By Elaine Pang ,

In early July, protests in Jiangmen, Guangdong resulted in authorities backing down from plans to construct a uranium plant. This is not the first time Chinese citizens have tangled with authorities and come through on a number of issues. Successful protests in China have taken place across the country, from Sichuan to Jiangsu to Ningbo. Once upon a time, it was the marginalized in rural areas of China driven to desperation. In contrast, today’s protestors are educated and well-off, seeking to prevent the (urban) environment they live in from becoming a cancer village. The Chinese government would predictably take a hard-handed approach towards politically-motivated demonstrations or even rural protests but concessions are more forthcoming in such NIMBY, or not-in-my-backyard protests.

Protests in China

“Children, not atoms”

Plans to construct a uranium processing plant were abruptly halted in Jiangmen, after thousands strolled innocently around the city’s Donghu Square, some carrying placards with messages like, “We want children, not atoms”.

Home to a substantial population of overseas Chinese and helped along by pressure from nearby Hong Kong and Macau, Jiangmen may not prove representative as concealment efforts by local authorities did not prove successful. A former resident who relocated to Hong Kong even came back to join the rallies. Strangely, higher-level support for the project was surprisingly absent. Local authorities had signed agreements with the China National Nuclear Corporation but state media pointed out that full approval had not been obtained from central authorities, even accusing local authorities of acting prior to public consultations.

Guangdong is already home to several nuclear power plants and the scrapped 37bn Yuan project could have fuelled half the country’s nuclear power plants. Jiangmen may be considered a landmark case in the sense that no violence was involved and no arrests were made. More commonly successful protests are pyrrhic victories. They usually start out as peaceful gatherings or walkabouts (to circumvent the need for permit application), but soon dissolve into a morass of tear gas, imprisonments and allegations of police brutality or brutality against the police, depending on whose point of view it is. During that time, Internet and media censorship would kick in. When authorities run the gamut of hard-line reactions, they finally give in, amidst much skepticism.

Masked protests against PX

The past few years saw a slew of PX (paraxylene)-related protests across China. Protestors typically don surgical masks emblazoned with anti-PX symbols in walkabouts.

Just prior to the once-in-a-decade leadership change in Beijing, Ningbo residents in eastern coastal Zhejiang Province decided to take on Sinopac’s planned expansion of a PX plant. Protestors were triggered to violence when tear gas was fired to disperse chanting crowds. According to authorities, protesters overturned a police car, pelted riot police with rocks and blocked roads. Arrests numbered anything from a dozen to 100 people, with at least 10 injuries and rumors of one death.

Similar protests against PX forced the relocation and closure of a plant in Dalian. In fact, three factories belonging to Sinopac had been closed in Guangdong province upon local authorities’ discovery of chemical discharge entering the municipal water system. Perhaps inspired by Ningbo’s success, a subsequent anti-PX protest in Kunming ended well, although another in Chengdu was quashed before it could get off the ground.

Other NIMBY protests

Also last year, plans to construct a copper processing plant to create jobs in Shifang, an area devastated by the 2008 Sichuan quake, was met with resistance. Heavy metal processing, known to be potentially toxic, led thousands to take to the streets. Authorities eventually took a u-turn from the initial hard-line approach, eventually giving in to demonstrators that were largely student-driven.

Around the same time, protests erupted in Qidong, Jiangsu when Japanese Oji Paper Company planned to construct a wastewater pipeline leading into the sea. Despite official reassurances that discharged wastewater would be purified to international standards, residents of the coastal province who were highly dependent on its fishing industry and fuelled by anti-Japanese sentiment, were unconvinced. Apart from violence on the street, protestors stormed government buildings destroying computers and flinging documents out of windows to cheers from watching crowds. Inside, protestors were further angered by the discovery of caches of expensive liquor and condoms. Mayor Sun Jianhua was stripped of his shirt and made to don one of the protest T-shirts.

Happy endings?

Unlike the Jiangmen protests, success through protests usually comes at a price. Wukan in Guangdong province is a classic example of such a pyrrhic victory. With the abolition of agricultural taxes, protests against land seizures in rural areas became increasingly common, as local officials turned to land sales to generate revenue.

Peaceful protests in the normally harmonious coastal village escalated into violence when detainee, Xue Jinbo, died in prison under mysterious circumstances. At one point, the entire village was put under siege. Provincial authorities finally intervened to return confiscated land and release detainees and Xue’s body. In an unusual move, the protest leader was made the new party secretary of Wukan.

The apparent success in Wukan inspired similar protests in Guangdong and Zhejiang. But Wukan today has become a victim of its own success with foreign investors jittery about political stability, inexperienced leadership and lack of central government support.

NIMBY protests may have a happier ending. Environmentally-related protests already outstrip land dispute-related protests. However, with the disturbing trend of the same protests moving from province to province, determined authorities are ever on the lookout for remote areas where residents are less well-informed and more pliant as sites of controversial projects.

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Keywords: PX Plant China protests across China protests in China


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