They were just «taking a stroll,» said organizers of an environmental protest in south China’s Guangdong province, using a widely understood term necessary in a nation whose Communist Party rulers ban most protests and unofficial public gatherings.
More than 1,000 people gathered at Jiangmen City Hall last week to demand authorities stop a planned uranium-processing facility that protesters feared would affect their health — and the health of future generations.
The $6 billion plant in Heshan, a smaller city administered by Jiangmen less than 60 miles from Hong Kong, was designed as a major supplier to nuclear power stations that Beijing says will help end China’s reliance on heavily polluting coal.
As the protest continued over the weekend, officials quickly announced the state-run project’s cancellation. The reversal chalked up another success for people power in the one-party People’s Republic after a series of capitulations over industrial projects in recent years. Authorities have bowed to urban anger at perceived threats to China’s environment, already ravaged by decades of poorly regulated economic growth.
Government credibility is so low that protests continued Sunday until senior city officials provided written confirmation that they will scrap the project. Though green activists welcomed the public’s rising environmental awareness, they criticized the government’s failure to inform and involve the Chinese public at an earlier stage of decision-making.
To calm local anger, officials sent text messages to residents this weekend saying the government will «respect public opinion.» Li Qian, a waitress at a seafood restaurant in Heshan, received three such texts. «I’m happy to hear that,» said Li, 23, who supported the protesters’ aims but did not participate. «If they stop the project permanently, we’ll all be safe. I hope they could keep their promise,» she said Monday.
Her caution is understandable, said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based non-profit group. Though some controversial projects are fully canceled, others «are built somewhere else, in less urban areas, where people are less resistant,» he said.
In this case, concern that protests would upset the party’s much-vaunted «social stability» forced the government’s hand, Ma said. For officials, «it’s still a zero sum game: ‘If people don’t know about it or say much, we just build, without any consultation with the people. If they take to the streets, we give up,'» he said. «It is time to transform our decision-making process,» to involve the public in a systemic way at an early phase and prevent the waste of resources that have been used for the aborted Heshan plant, Ma said.
The Global Times, a party-run newspaper, quoted a Jiangmen police officer warning Sunday that authorities would hunt down «those organizing illegal gatherings.» One protest leader, student Tao Jiangbo, wrote on Sina Weibo — China’s Twitter equivalent — stressing the patriotism of protesters, who don’t oppose the government but only this one project.
Neutralizing these «green» protests is more important to authorities than arresting ringleaders, which draws additional attention, said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Environmental activists have been punished for documenting pollution or encouraging others to do so, she said. The rising number of environmental protests, as Chinese people grow more aware, is «a very worrying trend for the government,» Wang said.
If protests turn nasty, China’s leaders can blame only themselves, wrote Yao Bo, a widely followed commentator on Sina Weibo. «The greatest achievement of a centralized society is to grind citizens into individuals who are afraid to get together,» but that’s also its greatest failure, he wrote.
After social change starts, he wrote, the country «will just face angry individuals, there’ll be no way to transfer or share power safely, through opponents and compromise, ultimately it’s a loss for both sides.»
The peaceful solution to the Jiangmen protests encouraged Prentice Koo, a senior campaigner for Greenpeace in nearby Hong Kong.
«There is a long way to go for China to achieve comprehensive public consultation, but government officials are getting more used to such conflicts and how to handle them,» he said. «This kind of disagreement between the government and the public will continue for some time, but I don’t expect it will become more intense.»