China Pollution

Environmental protests expose weakness in China’s leadership

Mass protests are a growing fixture in China’s grassroots’ not-in-my-back-yard environmental justice movement. A lightning rod for public action concerns PX plants chemical factories located elsewhere in the world that do not incite large-scale protests the way they do in China. Yet the Chinese government cannot convince citizens they are “no more harmful than a cup of coffee.” Forbes reports.

In “Environmental protests expose weakness in China’s leadership,” published by, authors Samantha Hoffman and Jonathan Sullivan highlight a recent protest attended by thousands of residents in a suburban district of southwestern Shanghai against the construction of a new chemical plant. The Shanghai demonstration forms part of a wave of protest action in the past several weeks alone involving citizens taking to the streets to oppose industrial pollution in different parts of the country.

“These waves of protest are unique in that they are uniting China’s working and middle classes under a common grievance,” note Hoffman and Sullivan, who also observe that the method of appeasement by government officials, for the sake of stability, is usually short-term in effect, but that such concessions nevertheless encourage “further episodes of contention”.

Of particular interest, is public cohesion around opposition to chemical factories that produce paraxylene (or PX commonly used to make plastics, paints and polyester). Large-scale and violent anti-PX protests have been a feature of the past eight years:

In a country where dangerously polluting industries are legion, it is PX that has captured the Chinese public’s imagination and growing awareness and concern about environmental pollution has coalesced around opposition to it. While exposure to the chemical can be harmful, safely constructed and regulated plants do not pose a great safety risk. Indeed, PX plants are located all over the world, and yet the only large-scale protests in opposition to them are in China.

According to Hoffman and Sullivan, government efforts to convince the public the plants are safe have not succeeded, in part, due to “clumsy” attempts at quelling concern with reassurances that inspire heightened skepticism, such as the People’s Daily claim that PX was “no more harmful than a cup of coffee.” A claim made a month prior to an explosion at a PX plant in Zhangzhou.

Even in the face of issues, PX is not necessarily a cause for the level of concern citizens direct to it. For instance, there is no evidence to suggest long-term exposure to PX causes cancer, a key focus of protesters. At the core of the PX public image problem, however, is people’s distrust of their government, say Hoffman and Sullivan:

While well-regulated PX plants are relatively safe, Chinese are well aware that strong regulation and good governance are rare commodities in their country. Suspicion of local officials is rife. People realize that local governments receive huge financial incentives to establish new waste-disposal and chemical plant projects and, ultimately, to prioritize economic growth above all else, including adequate safety measures.

Hoffman and Sullivan warn that the government’s inability to address an “entrenched public distrust of officialdom” risks the possible ‘joining up’ of atomized protests “into a coordinated, nationwide rebellion.”

A similar mistrust has emerged to meet China’s nuclear renaissance after a four-year pause in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. [See: China resumes nuclear power plant construction after a four-year freeze]

“Citizens don’t trust the government to run nuclear facilities safely when it can’t guarantee the safety of China’s food supply and worry that releases of radioactivity into local rivers would contaminate domestic and argicultural water supplies as well as downstream fisheries. They have good reason to worry,” says Patricia Adams, executive director of the Canadian-based energy watchdog Probe International. “The nuclear industry itself acknowledges that China’s nuclear workers and management lack a ‘safety culture’ and that the regulatory regime will have difficulty coping with the massive expansion plans.” [See: China gets back to nukes]

Read the full article at the publisher’s website here

Further Reading:

Ningbo’s people power halts petrochemical plant expansion – for now

China’s new dawn

Protesters win environmental battle in China

Activist Dai Qing: How China limits change, and stores discontent

Another public uprising forces hand of government

Shifang uprising halts controversial copper plant proposal


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