China is a country with gargantuan environmental problems, deep distrust of government and a population that is increasingly wired through mobile devices. Put that together and it’s no surprise that large street protests are breaking out against waste incinerators, chemical plants and other industrial projects.
The latest, in the southern China county of Boluo, in Guangdong province, saw thousands of people march through the streets Saturday, with some returning Sunday, to protest a planned garbage incinerator. Police detained 24 demonstrators, but overall the response was relatively restrained, a sign that Chinese authorities have resigned themselves to occasional environmental blow-back.
Judith Shapiro, a professor at American University in Washington who specializes in China’s environment, said it remains to be seen if China’s government will remain somewhat tolerant of anti-pollution protests.
“There is more political ‘space’ for protests around environmental issues than, for example, labor rights or the hot-button subjects of autonomy for Tibet or Xinjiang,” Shapiro said in an email exchange. That said, China’s Communist Party is “desperately afraid of unrest,” she added, noting Mao Zedong’s famous quote that a “single spark can cause a prairie fire.”
Pollution is the dark side of China’s economic juggernaut. Industrial contaminants have fouled about one-fifth of China’s arable farmland. The World Health Organization says air pollution levels in Beijing are 40 times higher than deemed safe to breathe. Dangerous levels of heavy metals keep showing up in China’s rice. Three-fourths of the nation’s lakes and rivers are severely polluted, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
In China, there is no freedom of assembly, and many people feel helpless in confronting these larger problems. But an increasing number are taking to the streets to protest projects in their communities they deem threatening.
In April, hundreds of residents in Maoming, another city in Guangdong province, clashed with police over a planned paraxylene plant. Paraxylene is a toxic petrochemical used in the production of polyester, and such plants have become increasingly controversial in China in recent years.
In May, a protest against a planned waste incinerator in Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, also turned into a melee. Ten demonstrators and 29 police officers were injured.
As with those previous protests, Saturday’s in Boluo was organized with the help of mobile devices and social media. Two days before the protest, messages went out on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, urging Boluo residents to gather at a city square at 9 a.m. Saturday.
The incinerator “will directly pollute the drinking water and air of the entire Boluo county,” said one message. “For our families, reject cancer!”
The pitch was effective. Video from the protest _ viewable outside of China on YouTube _ suggests that thousands of people marched through Boluo, a county of 875,000 in south China’s bustling Pearl River Delta.
Disposing of household garbage is becoming an increasing headache for local governments as China’s consumer culture expands. China generates about 200 million metric tons of solid waste yearly, and in 2004 it surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of garbage. By 2030, it is expected to generate twice as much waste as the United States, according to a 2012 report by the World Bank.
Some experts say incinerators are the best way to dispose of this waste, especially in crowded parts of China where landfill space is sparse. Nie Yongfeng, a professor emeritus at the Tsinghua University School of Environment in Beijing, said new incinerators in China operate at or above European Union standards for limiting dioxins and other pollutants. Opponents, he said, rely on old data from earlier incinerators to fan fears about such projects.
Others, however, say the government has been less than transparent in monitoring emissions from big waste burners. “There has been little release of public data, so it is hard to know if the incinerators are being operated safely,” said Lin Youzhu, manager of the solid waste program for Friends of Nature, China’s oldest environmental group.
By the end of 2013, according to Lin, 176 waste incinerators were operating in China, with another 74 under construction. She said the government offers subsidies for incinerator construction, which is undermining China’s once-impressive network of recycling and source separation of waste. The government, she said, “pays little attention to reducing waste at the source and puts all its attention into disposal.”
Shapiro, the American University professor and author of the 2012 book “China’s Environmental Challenges,” said it is encouraging to see Chinese people standing together against further degradation of their air, water and soil.
But such protests, she noted, tend to involve relatively well-off communities on China’s eastern coast. That raises the prospect that, in response to protests, authorities will simply relocate incinerators and other controversial projects to less affluent areas in China’s interior.
“Minority nationalities in China are particularly vulnerable,” said Shapiro, who directs American University’s Global Environment Politics Program. Their opposition to polluting enterprises, she said, can be tarred by the government and its supporters as separatism, “or even terrorism.”