By Kirstie Yu
Thousands of middle class protestors have risen up this year against chemical plant expansions in cities all over China, starting in Dalian (Liaoning province) in August 2011, Shifang (Sichuan province) in July 2012, and most recently Ningbo (Zhejiang province) at the end of October 2012. The concerns of these protestors lie primarily with the environmental damage and health risks involved with the potential pollution released into the city through toxic byproducts from the proposed paraxylene plant (Dalian), copper plant (Shifang), and petrochemical plant (Ningbo). The protests have ranged from nonviolent sit-ins and banner demonstrations to more violent riots with attacks on police cars and government offices. Police have arrested individuals, used tear gas to break up the crowds and even beaten some protestors, furthering frenzied riots and growing dissent against government plans.
Unlike how private companies primarily own the factories in America, government companies own the majority of factories in China. The main distinction is that the primary focus of the American government is to regulate, while the Chinese government both owns and regulates the factories. This allows the Chinese government to strongly influence and control which factories are built and when they are built, as well as make all the decisions about regulation. Protestors fear that the government is not transparent enough in its projects. Zeng Susen, a restaurant owner in Shifang, stated, “We don’t oppose the government, but they must explain the risks involved in a project like this, and they didn’t. Their publicity efforts were not good enough” (Blanchard). In Shifang, site of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, citizens like Zeng are concerned because along with failing to inform citizens, the government is making decisions for these citizens without any public input. In a country that is known for censoring information, it is not surprising that the citizens are unhappy that their voices are not being heard. Rather than accepting the system the government has imposed on them, an unprecedented number of citizens this year are speaking out for their right to be a part of the government’s process and their right to be heard.
When examining the urgency of a transparency policy for the Chinese government, it is interesting to note how the American government’s regulation agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), deals with transparency. America is an important comparison to China because it is the world’s second-largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions behind China according to United Nations statistics. The EPA’s transparency policy is “considered essential for responsive and participatory governing structures. In response to a growing demand from citizens, governments have employed a number of strategies to expand transparency policies and reporting structures” (EPA). These new strategies include the passing of laws such as the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 and the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Both increase citizens’ access to databases and records of reports filed by industry and federal facilities that deal with potentially dangerous chemical substances. Databases such as the Chemical Data Access Tool that allows the public to “find health and safety data that has been submitted to the Agency” are among the many tools the public has to access any record they want to in order to ensure safety in the region they live (EPA). Comprehensive annual progress reports, such as the Greenworks Midway Update and Progress Reports released by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in Philadelphia, are also released to the public when there are ongoing community projects that last over several years to ensure the public has a constant update about projects taking place in their neighborhood.
The demands of the Chinese protestors are not so farfetched and distant from those of the American public. The Chinese protestors want a way to hold their government accountable, as well as a way to find out about projects that are taking place in their neighborhood. Paralleling the Chinese citizens’ current situation, the American public possessed similar concerns over health risks from industrial factories. As technology improved and manufacturing became more efficient during the Industrial Revolution, factories were constructed all over America, including those for food. Books like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed how unsanitary meatpacking plants were, leading to demands for knowledge about if food companies were doing enough to keep communities safe and healthy. The American government started federal regulation agencies to help supervise these factories. Although protests were unnecessary in this instance, concerns for maintaining a higher living standard are reflected by both the American public and the Chinese protestors.
Recently, the government halted any immediate construction in the three cities following the protests as it cannot easily ignore such large-scale protests involving thousands of citizens. On November 12, 2012, the Minister for Environmental Protection Zhou Shengxian proclaimed at the Communist Party congress that the Chinese government will “increase transparency and public involvement in decisions regarding large projects with potential environmental impact” (Associated Press, Washington Post). Future projects must also pass a “social risk assessment,” which will evaluate how likely a project will cause social unrest in the neighborhood where it will be constructed.
Essentially, the citizens have received what they have been seeking: an adequate response from the government rather than suppression and ignorance. These protests captured the attention of the government as well as the rest of the world. If the Chinese government had continued to ignore or shake off the demands of its citizens, protests against the construction of dangerous chemical plants would have surely increased throughout the country until there was a breaking point. This situation resembles that of other instances of historical social unrest that have led to revolutionary changes throughout the world. During the French Revolution from 1789-1799, the bourgeoisie (middle class) was unhappy with how the government under King Louis XVI had caused major financial distress in their country, as well as tax inequality between the lower class and the higher class made of the nobility and clergy. Their revolt led to the change of the French government from a monarchy to a democracy. Similarly around the same time, the American colonists were unhappy because they did not have a say on the legislation imposed upon them by the British government. The colonists protested the British Tea Act through the famous Boston Tea Party. When their demands were still not met, a war broke out between the colonists and the British government, resulting in independence for the American colonies and a new democratic government. In modern times, communist countries are typically characterized as having strong governmental influence with little to no input from citizens. However, as these protests have shown, the middle class still has a strong influence on the government’s actions, no matter how indirect.
Despite the Chinese government’s commitment to accountability for future industrial projects, mistrust of the government still runs high. During the protests, protestors such as Mao and Wang in Ningbo took to social media to post pictures and blog about the protests as much as they could until the police detained them, forced them to delete photos they had taken, and warned them to not post any more information about the protests online. The Chinese government also censored “searches for phrases including ‘Zhenhai’ and ‘Zhenhai chemical plant’…on China’s popular microblogging site Sina Weibo” (Associated Press, San Francisco Chronicle). The fact that the government tries to suppress the public through censorship will only continue to build on the citizens’ doubt that the government will allow their voices to be heard. True, the government has made a public announcement that they will take steps to ensure more transparency policies but will they fulfill these promises? Is this only a temporary solution to quell the protestors and stop the demonstrations against the chemical plants? The Chinese government is the ultimate decider and there is no surprise that many citizens still believe the factories will still be constructed despite their discontent. However, what is more important underlying these protests, more than health risks coming from deadly emissions seeping into their neighborhoods, is the fact that these citizens are doing what they can to hold their government accountable. These middle class citizens have shown they have a voice that, when loud enough, the government simply cannot ignore. There is no doubt that the citizens will not rest if their demands are not met. The attention they have brought to the Chinese government will only intensify how closely its citizens and the rest of the world scrutinize its future actions.
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