Energy & Resources

Power to the people

Street protests in Ningbo over Sinopec chemical plant 

Power to the people

Not in our backyard

Nimbyism seems to be flourishing in China and it has just descended on Ningbo.

Linbixiaoying is the equivalent phrase in Chinese and Baidu Baike – China’s home-grown Wikipedia – explains the term as a by-product of the nation’s rapid economic growth and modernisation.

The latest Nimby protest in Ningbo, a city of three and a half million inhabitants on China’s southeastern seaboard, caught the attention of foreign and local media alike as China readies for a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

Last weekend, some 10,000 people gathered in the centre of the city to protest against the extension of a PX or paraxylene plant belonging to the oil giant Sinopec.

Initially the Ningbo authorities tried to quell the protest by stationing riot police around the city to prevent crowds from gathering. But skirmishes between the two sides on Friday night only saw more protesters turn out the next day.

Another tactic was to cover road signs on nearby expressways, masking the exit for Ningbo to confuse outsiders who were trying to visit the city (members of the foreign press being top of the unwelcome list).

But the strategy didn’t work, with overseas media soon reporting from the scene that the protesters were mainly middle-class, well dressed and carrying smart phones.

The demonstrators also insisted that they were not trying to make a wider political point: they just didn’t want to live with the risk of a chemical spill or carcinogenic air pollution in their local neighbourhood.
They were also angry that the plan had been approved by the local government without any community consultation. A similar dynamic was also true of recent protests in Dalian (see WiC118), Xiamen and Shifang.

In other parts of the world Nimby activism can sometimes be irritating, especially from those who refuse a motorway or mobile phone mast near their house but then happily make use of them somewhere else.

But these protesters don’t fall into this category. PX plants can be operated with minimal risk to surrounding areas. But the lack of consultation in locating and explaining them is really the root of the problem. The process by which these plants are approved is so opaque that the public is just left to guess at the potential health and environmental risks they may pose. As a result rumour and speculation often prevails.

Qilu Wanbao, a newspaper from Shandong, said something similar: “Even though the projects at Xiamen, Dalian and Qidong were all different, they all point to the same reality: pay attention to the environment or risk alienating public opinion.”

Netizens also agreed. “If the government was less arrogant, if it had launched hearings before important decisions were made, if it had asked people’s opinions, all this drama wouldn’t have happened and this project may even have been able to win the people’s support,” one weibo contributor claimed.

But others called for a wider halt to similar projects, even suggesting that China needed to stop manufacturing similar chemicals for the rest of the world and look after its own environment.

“We should all be Nimbies and the whole of China should be our backyard,” wrote one. “It is only when we protest that we get noticed,” reflected another.

Indeed, that did seem to be the case. On Sunday night the local government in Ningbo announced that it was halting construction of the plant until it had carried out “further scientific research”.

As some of the protesters pointed out, the promise could amount to little more than a temporary halt. But having seen how quickly the crowds assembled, city officials will not want to see a repeat performance, which could result in a rebuke from leaders in Beijing.

That fear may well outweigh any boost to Ningbo’s local GDP that might result from giving Sinopec’s project the go-ahead.

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