China's days of pursuing growth above all else are over. Protest upon protest over industrial projects that citizens see as damaging to health and the environment make that plain; people are no longer willing to put up with pollution and the consequences. Officials in the eastern city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province should have been aware of the need for changed ways, yet were unprepared for demonstrations over the planned expansion of a petrochemical plant that led to clashes with police at the weekend. They have halted the expansion, scrapping a controversial facility, and promised public consultations and greater transparency.
It would seem a victory for protesters, but not all residents see it that way. Authorities ignored weeks of petitioning against expansion of the plant, operated by oil and gas giant Sinopec, and sent in riot police with tear gas when demonstrators refused to end a thousands-strong rally. People were injured, arrests made and postings and sensitive words on microblogs remain blocked. Trust has been damaged and only by making good on their pledges is there a chance of it being restored.
Ningbo's government was well aware of the consequences of not letting residents have a say in their community. In July, a planned metals processing plant in the Sichuan city of Shifang and an industrial waste-water pipeline in Qidong, Jiangsu, were scrapped after thousands took to the streets. The ball was set rolling five years ago in Xiamen, Fujian province, when demonstrations drove a chemical project out of town. Behind the protests are a demographic that officials cannot ignore - rising numbers of urban, educated, middle-class professionals with economic and, increasingly, political clout. They are the backbone of the new affluent China. One of their aspirations is for a clean and healthy environment in which to raise their families. Development at all costs, the model behind three decades of growth, does not fit those desires. Understandably, they resist the heavy industrial expansion that local and provincial governments have favoured to meet economic targets.
Beijing has lowered growth expectations, which will help lessen pressure on the environment. Authorities realise the need to move towards a system where citizens are able to have a say in matters that affect their lives. But as the examples from Ningbo and elsewhere show, the message for transparency and public consultation is not sinking in as fast as it should.