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Chemical Plant Protest in China Highlights Growing Popular Power

More than a thousand protestors gathered in Ningbo, China, to protest the construction of a chemical plant that they feared would pollute the environment last weekend. Police dispersed the protestors, and then the authorities announced they were giving in to public anger and abandoning the project.

At first glance, it looks like the public furor succeeded in forcing the local government to give in to the the protestors’ demands. But we’ve seen this trick before, the FT reports:

In 2007, demonstrations against a PX plant [the same kind of plant in the Ningbo case] in Xiamen succeeded in halting construction there. In 2011, more than 10,000 protesters in Dalian gathered to demand the closure of a PX facility, eliciting a promise from the mayor that he would shut it down.

But local governments do not always follow through on such promises: when the Financial Times visited the PX plant in Dalian, which is owned by Dalian government-backed Dalian Fujia Petrochemical, in June this year, workers, security guards and outside suppliers all said that far from shutting down production the plant had been expanded and was hiring new workers. One western executive of a big petrochemical company in China said the Dalian plant had not stopped production.

Still, the fact that the authorities found it necessary to “cancel” the construction of the plant in Ningbo reflects the growing power of ordinary Chinese. Perhaps the most prominent example of this power is the widespread protests that erupted after a high-speed train crash killed forty people. Details of the crash investigation were covered up by the authorities, but the Chinese people wanted to know what happened. Eventually Wen Jiabao gave in to the public’s demands and visited the site, vowing to crack down on the corruption and shoddy construction practices that led to the crash.

But for smaller events, like the construction of a dirty chemical plant in Ningbo, the authorities can make promises to protestors to get them off the streets and out of the headlines, then carry on—slowly, quietly—when public and international attention has moved on.

It’s a smart strategy for the Chinese leadership, especially at a sensitive time like the upcoming leadership transition. But it won’t work forever, and we’ve seen that when people are killed or the public gets especially upset, the authorities must act.

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