How are ‘nimby’ campaigns changing China?

China’s environmental NGOs need to take on the concerns of local protests and keep the pressure on polluting companies

The rise in the number of large-scale environmental protests in China – there were three against potential factory pollution in Ningbo, Shifang and Qidong last summer alone – is attracting increasing attention from academics, lawyers and media.

It has also seen a response from central government.

The first came in September 2012, when the newspaper 21st Century Business Herald reported a new round of reforms to China’s environmental impact assessment system (in theory, meant to stop harmful projects before they begin), suggesting this was a move to “increased openness of information and public participation”.

This was followed by an announcement from the Chinese environment minister at November’s 18th Party Congress, the once-in-five-year event where China’s new generation of leadership was confirmed. Speaking to press, Zhou Shengxian outlined a series of measures to reduce environmental protests, including greater transparency and expanded public participation.

He also confirmed planned reform of the environmental impact assessment process, while the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) – China’s top economic planner – introduced a new tool, the “social stability risk assessment”. In April 2013, Southern Weekend reported this would be used for investments in fixed assets reported to the NDRC or State Council for approval.”

Business ignoring protests

Despite these announcements and media attention, businesses themselves appear resistant to change. There has been no sign of any individual company responding directly to these local protests – on the contrary, some of the firms involved in the scandals continue to find themselves in the news for their environmental conduct.

In February this year, for example, Southern Weekend reported that the Tenglong Aromatic Hydrocarbon PX facility had relocated from Xiamen to Zhangzhou after national uproar over its environmental impact assessment. But the problems simply moved with the company, which started work before changes to the project’s environmental impact assessment report had been approved. The environment ministry called a halt to construction and imposed a 200,000 yuan fine.

A similar outcome followed the closure of the Dalian PX facility which was shut down due to public pressure in August 2011. In December the following year, Beijing News reported that the facility had quietly started operating again, claiming it had meet city planning rules. Locals were reported to be attempting to obtain information about the plant to help close it again, but had “not found it easy”.

Clearly, the companies involved in these two cases have not been driven to greater transparency by public pressure. Since local ‘nimby’ protests tend to be short-lived, all the firms need to do is to wait for a period of time and then they can resume normal operations.

The role of environmental NGOs

Environmental NGOs have been absent from the local ‘nimby’ protests of recent years. This worries some who work for those groups – haven’t they failed if they don’t stand alongside people protesting against possible health risks from new factories?

Lu Zhi is director of one of China’s most prominent green NGOs, the Shan Shui Conservation Center. She believes recent campaigns have changed the way the public get involved in environmental protection. Previously, public participation in this field would mean doing so via environmental NGOs – but now citizens are organising and acting independently, she said.

This does not reduce the value of NGOs, however, said Lu, arguing that each method has its strengths: “Traditional organisations, the government and the market all need to reorient themselves. But there are disadvantages to public campaigns too – they stop as quickly as they start, and while it might change something, like in Dalian, pollution isn’t solved at the source.

“There is still lots of other work to be done. Given this, NGOs need to think carefully about how to be most effective.”

In the eyes of Liang Xiaoyan, a director of oldest established environmental campaign group Friends of Nature, that role is advocacy. Speaking in March, Liang said NGOs had a responsibility to take on this role: “The social links which develop civil society are currently fragmented. Even if voices are heard, they fall silent when nobody takes up the cry.”

Positive involvement by NGOs has been documented by academics in the field. Professor Wu Feng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Peng Lin, a post-doctoral student at the same university, analysed the campaign against an incinerator plant in Panyu, Guangdong, which started in 2009. They expressed admiration for the way in which the campaign had organised and registered as a local environmental NGO and said they were pleased to see NGOs actively and constructively involved in the process.

The involvement of environmental groups such as Friends of Nature had helped to shape the public’s agenda on waste management and promoted the “open, rational and organised development of the anti-incinerator campaign,” they said.

“The most important change during the campaign was the birth of a new environmental NGO, giving permanence to a spontaneous and dispersed movement and providing more stable support for public participation in politics.”