Yangtze Briefing

Hangzhou riot shows once public trust is lost, it is hard to win back

Authorities' handling of opposition to a planned incinerator in Hangzhou has further eroded people's faith in government

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 3:18am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 3:18am

The violent protest last week against a proposed waste treatment plant in Hangzhou was fuelled by public fears over the environment but also a deep mistrust of government.

The lack of faith cuts both ways. Government officials are frustrated, too, believing they are being blocked from launching important projects. In South Korea and Japan, they argue, such waste treatment facilities and petrochemical projects are completed with ease.

The residents of Hangzhou's Yuhang district don't see it that way. They said they learned only last month a rubbish incinerator would be built when the Zhejiang Provincial Construction Department posted the proposal on its website, ostensibly to solicit public opinion.

Two days later, a letter was drafted on behalf of hundreds of residents asking authorities to drop the plans.

Residents said they were never invited to give feedback on the proposal

People began to gather daily in front of government offices in Zhongtai, about 25 kilometres west of the city's centre, and at the site of a dilapidated mine where the incinerator was to be built.

Local authorities responded by issuing a notice on May 9 suggesting that if the public refrained from protesting, the project would be suspended indefinitely until residents gave their consent.

The notice fell on angry ears. The next day more than 5,000 protesters gathered, many of them blocking a local expressway, the Beijing News reported. At least 10 protesters and 29 police officers were injured in the protest, and about 30 cars were overturned.

Xu Liyi, Hangzhou's deputy mayor, pledged information about the project would be disclosed to the public. But again, local residents put little stock in the official word.

There are reasons for the credibility gap. The district government said it would not start the plant until the public consented, yet residents say construction equipment was moved to the area at the start of the month.

They said they were never invited to give feedback or participate in consultations.

The project could adversely affect the lives of nearly half a million people who live and work in the area, and locals have noted the site is only a few kilometres from the district's drinking water source.

So far, 53 people have been detained for taking part in the protests and seven were held for spreading rumours online.

The handling of the incident has further eroded public faith in government. Zhejiang is an economic powerhouse in the Yangtze River Delta - a region that is said to have benefitted from relatively competent officials and transparent governance. But the reality may be less sanguine.

Plans to build a paraxylene plant in Ningbo triggered public protests in 2012. Last year, residents of Shanghai's Songjiang district blocked construction of a major lithium battery factory near their homes. In both cases, local government backed down in the face of an irate public. And in both cases, the core concern was environmental impact.

Officials mutter that despite assurances the proposed facilities are safe, the protests continue. They feel confused when they see similar projects given a green light in other countries in the region. They ask: why can't people accept such projects?

One internet user said authorities should consider building rubbish incinerators closer to their offices, as this would make people feel safer.

Decades of lax supervision of polluting industries may be at the root of today's mistrust of officialdom. But how long will it take to turn mistrust into confidence?