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The Great Fall of China (Or So They Keep Telling Us)


By Abbey Heffer

The world keeps citing the rising number of environmental protests as a sign of China’s impending doom. It is true that the occurrence of such protests has increased by 29 percent year-on-year since 1996; but somehow, strangely, it seems as though the central government is actively encouraging outbreaks of popular protest. If they concern the environment, that is.

Whose war on pollution?

Once upon a time, it could have been easily argued that the Chinese government violently suppresses any instance of social unrest. In fact, such a point could have been easily argued just last week. Perhaps yesterday. But none would have concerned the environment.

It is surprising that environmental protests, which have risen steadily for nearly 10 years, no longer seem to see the traditional levels of social suppression. Have the powers-that-be grown bored or lazy in their bureaucratic lethargy? Are they finding it to difficult to keep up with the rapid-fire, trending-in-two-minutes pace of the Internet age?

Or … Are they supporting social unrest?

Somewhere, somehow, someone has decided that environmental protests actually serve to strengthen the position of the central government, rather than challenge it. Simultaneously, such protests seem to keep local officials on their scapegoated toes, while the Central Party Committee enjoy a position of reverence and moral highness as they declare a vague “War on Pollution.”

No ordinary disruption: Central government support?

Former CCTV host Chai Jing’s "Under The Dome," an interrogative documentary focusing on the deadly levels of smog (wu mai) across China, was published by the Party’s most well-known mouthpiece, the People’s Daily. The documentary conveniently managed to reach between 300 and 400 million viewers before it was “censored” and blocked for Chinese Internet users; and when the Chinese premier Li Keqiang was questioned about it, rather than denounce the illegal video, he fully supported its message and publication.

Environmental issues have also received strangely special treatment by other major government institutions and publications.

Xinhua is the official news agency of the People’s Republic of China and the sole form of communication between the central government and the people. Last month, residents of the southern city of Heyuan, Guangdong province, protested violently against government approval of a coal-fired power plant expansion. According to local government officials, only around 200 people joined the protests. But Xinhua, which described last year's massive Hong Kong protest as little more than an "illegal gathering," reported that “thousands” of people joined the Guangdong environmental protest.

It seems that local governments didn’t get the memo. While the state-governed media inflamed the scale of protests, local governments floundered while attempting to stick to traditional self-censorship, only to find themselves left out on a limb by their Central superiors.

A tale of surprising success

It is even more surprising that many of these environmental protests are seeing success, despite their illegality.

In Ningbo, a city inland from Shanghai, a protest against the construction of a paraxylene plant turned violent as protesters clashed with police. Though arrests were made for violent behavior during the protest, the local government consented to a series of “carefully calculated concessions” in order to defuse tensions.

In July 2013, a “walkabout” protest in Jiangmen, Guangdong, led to the scrapping of a 37 billion RMB (around US$6 billion) nuclear power project. In this case, no arrests were made, and the protest dissolved peacefully as the government accepted the demands of the people.

Why is the government relaxing its stance on political protests and social disorder in the face of ever-increasing environmental activism?

No ordinary situation

It stands to reason that the central government would support and even actively encourage environmental protests. To do so helps raise public support for high-level government spending on the development of renewable energy technologies, and the incredibly expensive task of converting from coal to clean-coal energy production. In the event that taxes must be increased in order to fund large-scale reforms, the government rests assured that it has the financial backing of the people in doing so.

Environment Minister Chen Jining stated earlier this year that the central government has allocated 9.8 billion RMB (US$1.58 billion) in special funds to control air pollution. An additional private investment of 300 billion RMB of private investment was also “leveraged,”

In short, the PR machine of the PRC is working full-speed to preserve regime legitimacy while simultaneously functioning as a working government. But does this reflect strength or weakness? While Forbes votes “weakness in China’s leadership,” others, such as Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency, argues that China “deserves more credit” for its strength in pushing for energy reform. Al Jazeera suggested strength when citing the arrest of 8,400 people for “environmental crimes.”

Is this all just one huge case of the Chinese government seeing all, knowing all, but letting some things slide? Or is there a genuine agenda here, assisting the country’s continued clean-up? Is the government instituting some strange kind of societal reverse psychology?

Note: The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of any unit of the Chinese government. Responsibility for the views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author.

Image credit: Flickr/Lei Han

Abbey Heffer is a satirist, historian and environmental enthusiast from London. Currently working as an investment consultant in Guangdong Province, Abbey is the first foreign woman to be hired directly by the Chinese government. Focusing on China’s troubled relationship with its environment and innovative local solutions to pollution, Abbey’s work can be found online in the ‘Business of Being Critical’: www.beycritical.com<

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