Dalian protest can serve as a catalyst

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 August, 2011, 12:00am


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There is nothing more telling about how a city is being run than when tens of thousands of angry people pack its central square, demanding authorities shut down a petrochemical plant on their doorstep. Such a protest would not have been necessary if environmental laws were followed and enforced or if citizens had more of a say in their government, but these are not realities for Dalian, in the northeastern province of Liaoning. Nor are times as they once were, when police and security forces would have prevented such a gathering and officials would have ignored the outrage. In a matter of hours on Sunday, municipal authorities responded to the demands, and the crowds went home victorious, sending a clear message to like-minded people across the nation.

In newly affluent China, where expectations for a better life are ever-rising, officials had little choice other than to promise that the plant, 20 kilometres from the city centre, would be moved elsewhere. A similar, but smaller protest in Xiamen four years ago set the ball rolling and showed what citizens could achieve. There have since been well-organised protests on environmental issues all over the country and worried officials have often been careful to heed demands. It is what authorities in Dalian must also do by setting a timetable for the closure of the complex and ensuring that it is followed.

As environmental laws go, the mainland's are as good as the rest: most bases are covered, there are problems that need fixing here and there, but overall they offer protection. Where they veer sharply from the foreign legislation from which the mainland has heavily borrowed is with enforcement, a shortcoming that means its cities, land and waterways are among the world's most polluted. The problem is at the local level, where governments continue to put economic growth and development ahead of the environment. As long as they keep to this mindset, they will face a growing tide of discontent.

Most major industrial plants, power stations and factories are located near urban areas, the sources for labour and demand. Although environmental laws were enacted in 1989, it was not until 2003 that legislation requiring environmental impact assessments took effect. Poor enforcement, lax oversight and low fines mean that few projects are rejected or forced to modify. It is generally only when people protest that hazards are taken care of.

A typhoon that hit Dalian last week, knocking holes in a sea barrier near the plant, sparked safety concerns. An environmental assessment before construction started in 2005 would surely have led to it being built in a more suitable location. The protest has to serve as the catalyst for all industrial complexes and power stations to be assessed and to better enforce environmental laws. Public involvement is essential.