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By Zhao Chu Published: June 18, 2013
It is a zero-sum game between the economic operation of the power players and the people waking up to claim their civil rights.
May 4th in China is Youth Day. This May, several cities saw environmental protests that have become common over the last few years: some residents in Kunming marched to protest the Anning PX (paraxylene) Project, Chengdu residents opposed the Pengzhou Petrochemical Project, and residents of the Songjiang district in Shanghai protested the construction of a battery factory. Aside from what was sporadically heard on the Chinese Internet where these events were censored, there were reports that an industrial storage facility in Huangdao, Qingdao, exploded on the night of May 4th.
What all these events have in common is that the social protests and confrontations over environmental protection are no longer limited to small and medium-sized cities as they were in the past. They are happening in tier one and tier two cities with dense populations and have enormous impact. Also, they are happening more frequently across China. In reality, starting from the Shanghai Fire in 2010, struggles in connection with social safety and environmental protection have become a common form of social movement. The confrontation between the government and the people over PX projects is, in essence, the people demonstrating an awakening sense of civil rights and directly resisting authoritarian power in contemporary Chinese society. As such, people who are interested in China’s transformation toward democracy and freedom should pay particular attention to this contest.
The fact that some of the tier one and two cities are still constructing large-scale petrochemical projects — as if it’s nothing serious — shows that local authorities in China have learned absolutely nothing constructive from the anti-PX protests between the government and the people in Xiamen, Dalian, Shifang and Ningbo over the last few years although they drew wide attention. These are in addition to the incident in which dead pigs floated down the Huangpu River and a new avian flu that stoked widespread fear. The forceful and ruthless implementation of these projects proves that power holders all over China believe that, as long as they are ready with enough methods of suppression, as long as they prohibit more thoroughly the spread of information on the Internet and in the media, and as long as they control society even more strictly, then these projects can all proceed without worry. To put it plainly, on important issues about peoples’ livelihoods and social interests, the government predicates its policymaking and implementation on the simple arrogance of “If I have guns, why should I worry about them?”
By the principles of market economics, government should withdraw from economic policymaking and operations to the greatest extent possible; it should be content to act in the role of an impartial facilitator. In addition, such functions are not just about capital and profit. First of all, if a city’s government is a government for all people, then the opinions, wishes and interests of the local residents are precisely what the government should consider first. But in case after case across China, what we see is the exact opposite. Because local powers forcibly control the land necessary for construction, and because the direct, as well as derived, profits from land are the main goals of their economic and fiscal policies, the first thing they think about in policymaking and implementation is to cooperate with external capital, and not to serve as an impartial broker considering local interests. This is the main reason that confrontation over environmental issues, once touched off, often becomes an intense conflict, for these are two kinds of interest that can in no way be reconciled.
To analyze why Chinese local governments are willing to take on the enormous risk of wide popular discontent and mass protests to pursue these large-scale projects, one must understand the unspoken rules of how local power in China makes money these days. With construction projects by powerful state trusts or the so-called “new state-owned enterprises,” local governments have the strong political desire to please those in the central government who granted them power in the first place; even more directly, in land acquisition, project financing, infrastructure construction, and equipment purchasing over the course of these projects, local power and the “central SOEs” are locked in a partnership to make money. This is not just a desktop game to satisfy local fiscal needs. From beginning to end, public property is embezzled through webs of interpersonal relationships, and they act in collusion to siphon profits in astronomical proportions. This, and this alone, is at the core of the relationship between central and local government that is unique to China, and it is also the driving force behind interactions from top to bottom.
It’s understood then that, in China, large construction projects provide all kinds of opportunities for hidden plays by various power players. Even if we consider nothing else but just the issue of development, we can see plainly the convergence of the direct interests of national SOEs and the local authorities, since politics and economics are identical at China’s highest level of power. Given the systemic characteristics of vertical power-granting from top to bottom, it is neither realistic, nor possible, for local governments to resist external capital that comes in the name of the country’s overall development in favor of the wishes and interests of local residents. Whatever lofty declarations are made, it is actually the basic, realistic thinking of political science that is at work. If you look at the resumes of the new team of national leadership or promotions and job adjustments of party and government officials at other levels, you will find, in either the realm of politics or that of economics, clan-forming and factionalized power structures. Officials can switch roles between the two realms according to the needs of power and interest distribution, as we have seen in the job switches of members in the Li Peng clan.
In addition, local officials are required to “defend territory” (for the “emperor”) and to “maintain stability.” Since power is granted from top to bottom, local residents have no effective ways to constrain the power of local authorities. Without systemic constraints, self-organized “strolls” by residents, or mass protests known internally in the government as an “outbreak of trouble,” is quite possibly the only tool the local residents have to engage the government. For local government though, its performance has for a long time been assessed by two big targets — GDP and the absence of political disturbance. So we can see that, on the one hand, mass protests have in fact been inevitably bred by the present system where power lacks constraints, and on the other hand, they are what the system must severely suppress. Under the current system, this is a knot that cannot be untied, because the true significance of these conflicts is not economic or industrial; it is political, and it is a zero-sum game between the economic operation of power and the people waking up to claim their civil rights.
In this game where the government sides with capital and holds the same point of view, it is impossible for the government to maintain the confidence and trust of the people in this battle that has no arbitrator. On a playing field without a referee, it is impossible to have fairness, let alone, in this contest between people’s basic desire for a better life and the absolute will of power, the referee, in fact, is the side that is breaking the rules. As for the actions on the ground of residents in various cities, it is the protesters who have shown a high level of self-restraint, rationality, and respect for law and humanity, because they understand very well the arbitrary and brutal nature of state power in China. People are deeply aware that, in China, exercising one’s natural rights is as dangerous an endeavor as “stroking a tiger’s whiskers and asking it for its fur.” But regardless of the goodwill they strive to show, the government still responds, consistently, with the same brutality and arrogance.
China is not alone in building PX projects, and the average person does not really possess the exact knowledge of the potential hazards of the chemical industry. But, if one understands a little bit about the circumstances that I discuss here, one ought to understand that the real driving force against these projects is not a scientific debate about the chemical industry, but rather, the antagonism toward a government that the people do not trust, are suspicious of, and have few means of influence concerning their most vital interests. Too many lessons in both history and the present reality tell them that the government’s wonderful description of economic development is not at all reliable. In fact, the things it pushes with the best arguments are often the most worrisome. Thus, even if residents are possibly wrong in their scientific opinions of these PX projects, in their perception of ultimate harm or interest, the urban residents in these cities are absolutely right if you know just a bit of Chinese contemporary history. Look at the current situation of China’s environment, food, drinking water, etc. So long as a person has a bit of reason and conscience, I believe that no one would doubt this point.
The problem is, after so many intense confrontations have occurred, do those in power still not know about the absence of trust in their governance and that this mistrust is a result of the system itself? They know it very well, given the meticulous information control measures they take and the overwhelming force they deploy each time there is a conflict. But if one wants to break free from this kind of confrontation where the outcome will be tragedy, what is needed? Of course what is needed is an independent judiciary that the people trust and a system where the people can rightfully, safely, and clearly utter their voices as well as appeal to public opinion and the rule of law. But this is precisely what the regime does not allow, and it doesn’t even want to make the faintest promise of a false hope. Because of this hopelessness, what is a normal expression of popular concern takes on the tragic feeling of a final showdown, and that is something worth watching.
Public trust is the basic characteristic of state power. It is something impossible to obtain by power wielders flaunting individual moral goals. It can only come from the premise of the system. And the construction of any system is of course not merely about the economy and the livelihood of the people; it is comprehensive and political. Some of my friends tend to underestimate these environment-related struggles, failing to see this significance.
On the other hand, theories that imagine the contemporary Chinese political opposition movements from the template of 19th and 20th century revolutions in the history of China and foreign countries have intrinsic faults. First of all, in the age of economic globalization and social digitalization, groundbreaking social revolutions are decentralized, and there will never again be movements like the French Revolution in 1789 or the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Secondly, local power’s demand for a representative system in these struggles is one of the most powerful driving forces for democratic transition. If you have doubts about the motivation of local power in the modern liberal democracy, you only need to look back at the Yunnan mine protection movement and the Sichuan railway rights protection movement 100 years ago, and you will understand why the central authorities today have to support the suppression of anti-PX protests even at the expense of the Party’s moral standing and its image. It was in exactly these circumstances that Duan Fang (端方) was ordered to reinforce Sichuan with troops.
In short, through this year’s turbulent May 4th environmental struggles across China and the government’s extra severe suppression, people should clearly see a basic reality, that is, on the eve of enormous change, today’s China no longer has the so-called “localized incident.” Rather, any odd spark could trigger a final eruption of the volcano. Friends who are aspiring to the cause of change should not be the least bit hazy about this.
Zhao Chu (赵楚) is a Shanghai-based independent commentator and a long time researcher on international strategy, global military and social issues in China.
(Translated by Jack)