Clean growth is the lesson of Shifang
Environmental protection is shaping up alongside official corruption as an issue with the potential to undermine the political legitimacy of Communist Party rule. The increasing sensitivity of the authorities to public opinion attests to that. The latest example is the violent protest in Shifang, Sichuan, over environmental and health concerns about a metal processing plant planned for the city. After three days it resulted in the city's party chief backing down and promising to scrap the plant, rather than the protest being put down, as would often have been the case in the past.
China's struggle to reconcile development with the quality of life has given rise to social conflict, amplified by social media, that threatens social harmony. Indeed, it was the role of a thriving social media in mobilising public opinion that forced the authorities' hand. Granted they would have been mindful of the need for stability ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership change. But, hopefully, such open public defiance of authority will drive home to the nation's leaders the importance of ensuring a better balance. It is not the first high-profile climbdown. A similar, if smaller, protest in Xiamen, Fujian province, four years ago that drove a chemical plant project out of town set the ball rolling. Last year in Dalian, Liaoning, the authorities responded to popular demand to shut down a petrochemical plant. Since the Xiamen protest, officials have become more tolerant of protests on environmental issues.
That said, Shifang is a case apart. It was one of the cities hit hard by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The central government has spent vast sums on reconstruction of devastated areas. It was a chance to uphold principles of sustainable development. But the emphasis has been on getting life back to normal. Local officials, understandably, bent over backwards to attract investment, cutting corners to clinch deals.
The developer of the proposed 10.4 billion yuan (HK$12.77 billion) molybdenum-copper alloy plant in Shifang - Shanghai-listed Sichuan Hongda - had approval from the Ministry for Environmental Protection. But local people doubt there could have been a proper assessment. Despite the rush to rebuild, officials should strive to do everything by the book. Residents have suffered enough as a result of the earthquake and deserve a better environment in which to live.
Generally, the mainland has good environmental laws, with one glaring exception - enforcement. Despite its elevation to a full ministry a few years ago, the environmental protection authority remains a paper tiger when it comes to dealing with local government officials who put development ahead of the environment. As a result, China's cities, land and waterways are among the world's most polluted. The Shifang riot is a wake-up call to a growing tide of public discontent.