A wake-up call for the environment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:07pm


Increasing environmental awareness and militancy is testing mainland authorities' efforts to maintain stable development and social harmony ahead of a once-in-a-decade leadership change. Twice within a month violent protests that would have been put down in the past have resulted in officials backing down. This has prompted People's Daily, the Communist Party's top mouthpiece, to chide local government for approving controversial projects without sufficient consultation with residents, and to call for transparent decision-making in a tolerant environment for public opinion. The daily's affiliated tabloid, Global Times, said the spread of the 'Shifang-Qidong model' of violent protest would damage social stability and present an unprecedented challenge to China's future development.

Shifang, Sichuan, saw three days of violent protest over pollution and health concerns about a planned metal processing plant that led to it being scrapped. Authorities in Qidong, Jiangsu, agreed last weekend to abandon plans for an industrial waste-water pipeline from a paper factory after thousands took to the streets over fears it would pollute a fishing port. To be sure, officials would have been mindful of political sensitivities ahead of the party congress. But if People's Daily's mini-homily on responsible local government - 'make oneself independent of the specific entanglements of economic interests and become the implementer of the public interest' - is to be taken seriously, it signals a paradigm shift from development at all costs in collusion with developers towards more public consultation.

That can only be good. Enforcement of environmental laws has been sadly lacking, to the detriment of the country's cities, land and waterways. People's Daily put a positive spin on public defiance of authority over pollution from industrial projects by pointing out that it provided an opportunity to shift away from low-end manufacturing towards less-polluting industries. Without more effective enforcement of the law, this will be a slow process. Beijing has shown it hears the wake-up call. It remains to be seen whether it heeds it.