24
May

As its recent experience in Kunming shows, Beijing can handle environmental protests. But is this approach sustainable in the long term?

kunmingprotest

Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province, has become the latest city in China to be rocked by environmental protest. On May 4 and then again on May 16, 1,000 to 2,000 protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against the construction of an oil and chemical refinery in the nearby city of Anning by the state-run oil company China National Petroleum Corporation.

Kunming Mayor Li Weirong attempted to placate the protesters — offering to open a personal Weibo account through which residents could communicate with him and even promising that the project wouldn’t continue if “most of our people don’t agree with it.” The South China Morning Post offers a fascinating blow-by-blow account of the beleaguered mayor’s interaction with the protesters.

It is tempting simply to add the Kunming protest to the growing list of Chinese urban environmental protests, and note once again that the Communist Party has not found the right balance between economic development and environmental protection. However, the real significance of these protests is that they signal the failure of Chinese institutions to adapt to the changing needs and demands of the people for a greater voice in the political process. Environmental politics has become a game of crisis management.

Formally, there are a few ways in which Chinese citizens can participate in environmental decision-making. For one, they can take part in reviewing environmental impact assessments for proposed large projects in their neighborhoods. As Chinese scholars have noted, however, there are a number of limitations to this process: only a small percentage of projects are subjected to compulsory public participation; the timing and duration of engaging the public is short; the method of selecting those who can participate is often biased; and the amount of information actually disclosed is often quite limited in an effort to prevent social unrest. Read more…

As published by The Atlantic on May 20, 2013

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