Blocking protests only delays the inevitable
Guangzhou officials showed new sophistication in halting a campaign against a planned rubbish incinerator but such opposition can't last long
Guangzhou's rubbish problem is again in the spotlight after more than 10,000 residents living in Huadu district rallied against a planned incinerator, one of the largest protest turnouts in the city in years.
The show of strength came at a heavy price - authorities are growing more efficient in cracking down on large demonstrations and are responding with numerous arrests.
Residents held three protests last month, with the first coming in July 15. It was targeted at the Shiling township government after the district government announced Qianjin village in Shiling had been selected as the site location for the city's fifth incinerator.
Participants estimated the turnout was at least 10,000, while others said the figure was double that. Police officers were seen clearing a path for protesters who marched around the township. The event was peaceful.
The Shiling government is also against the incinerator proposal. The area is a leather goods hub responsible for making half of the world's non-luxury handbags, and officials fear the project will drive away potential investors - and future tax revenue.
A number of villagers said the Shiling government backed their first protest. Days before the event, villagers communicated with Shiling officials, notifying them of the expected turnout and the route. This explains why such a large rally, with many participants holding banners denouncing a government project, was allowed to go ahead.
"Permission to protest had been granted," said a Shiling resident who refused to be named. "I can not elaborate any more but let's just say it is also in the Shiling government's interest to see the incinerator relocated elsewhere."
Residents escalated their effort on July 19, targeting the district government. Residents staged a big rally outside the district government headquarters and also marched along its busiest streets, bringing traffic to a standstill. At least four people were injured in clashes with the police. The protest was broken up just before 6pm but authorities entered Qianjin village in Shiling that night and arrested at least nine suspected organisers of the event.
When it emerged residents planned to take their campaign to downtown Guangzhou, authorities stepped up their efforts. They targeted other suspected organisers, key players and village leaders, detaining some, confiscating mobile phones and tracking social media messages, residents said.
Several hundred residents who made the journey to downtown Guangzhou on July 23 were caught in a police dragnet. Stringent identity checks were carried out in public areas, especially outside city government offices.
Police took down the personal details of anyone with identity cards bearing a Shiling address. Officers immediately broke up any small crowds lingering outside government offices. Those who were detained were taken groups to a sports stadium at Yuexiu Mountain and put on coach buses that took them back to Shiling.
One has to applaud the efficiency and execution of the city government in pre-empting a large protest over a genuine grievance. The government appears to be growing more skilful at "maintaining social stability".
Qianjin villagers and Shiling township residents were taking action out of fear for their health and their jobs in the leather goods hub. They said they were never consulted before the project was announced.
They have heard horror stories of hazardous emissions and underground water pollution from Likeng villagers in Baiyun district, which has the city's first and second incinerators. Likeng villagers blame the incinerator for rising cancer rates in the area.
Protests like the ones by Huadu residents and the ones in Jiangmen against a uranium processing plant are part of a growing trend triggered in part by the Guangdong government's obsession with drumming up economic indicators to protect its status as the mainland's gross domestic product leader.
Solving the province's environmental problems and addressing residents' needs have to be tackled at some point. Clever tactics to head off protests is just putting off the inevitable.