February 28,2008

Not in My Backyard: China's Rising Middle Class Growing Environmental Contention

By Ma Wenluo

The success that residents of Xiamen, in the province of Fujian, have had in halting the operations of a Paraxylene (PX) chemical plant seems to have encouraged other citizens across the country to stand-up and protect the environment. Since the beginning of the year, residents in a number of cities, perhaps inspired by the central government’s new policy of "Scientific Outlook on Development’? which aims to put people first and promote sustainable development, have openly questioned or even opposed projects which they deemed harmful to their living environment. This growing trend is spreading fast across the country as not only the richer coastal areas, but also the fast developing inland regions are seeing an increasing number of middle classes homeowners oppose a number of controversial projects. This will certainly obstruct some of China’s future projects in areas such as infrastructure construction, energy and the chemical industry.


In Guangzhou, 14 delegates to the People’s Congress of the Province of Guangdong,  in the south of China, have recently presented a motion to postpone the establishment of what is being called "China’s largest joint-venture oil refining project’?in the Nansha District of the city of Guangzhou. The refining and petrochemical project represents a total investment of about $5 billion; it is being developed by a joint venture between Sinopec and the Kuwait National Petroleum Company (KNPC). If the scheme goes ahead as planed, the plant would process approximately 12 million tons of crude oil a year producing 1 million ton of ethylene annually. Nansha District has the distinction of being the geometric center of the Pearl River Delta. It is located on the southernmost point of Guangzhou and is surrounded by cities such as Dongguan, Zhongshan and Shenzhen, all very large processing and manufacturing centers for the "made in China’?brand. The delegates worry that the proposed complex, covering a total area of 8 square miles, would further aggravate the regions already serious air pollution problems. In fact, according to documents released in January of this year by the Development and Reform Commission of Guangzhou, petrochemical projects such as the one currently being projected in Nansha are likely to produce water, air, solid waste and ecological pollution. The State Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has reportedly not replied to the environmental evaluation of this project.

In Beijing, China’s capital city, residents living near a land marked as "K5-3-1’? in the Wangjing area, took turns to guard an electrical substation construction site during the Chinese lunar new years in an attempt to stop the completion of the project. Residents fear that radiation from the substation could harm them and their families. Negotiations involving the land owner, the builder and representatives of the relevant government departments were fruitless in resolving the standstill. The residents?request to read the environmental evaluation report was rejected, triggering criticism from the Center for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims of the China University of Politics & Law stating that " residents have the right to read this report’? There have now been four environmental affairs in which local residents have opposed electrical substations adjacent their habitations. A person close to the decision-making circle at SEPA said the agency is now formulating a new industry wide standard on electromagnetic radiation of high voltage lines.  

In China’s metropolis of Shanghai, the government plans to extend the super-fast maglev train line, which begins at the Pudong International Airport to the city’s domestic airport west of the city and further to Hangzhou, the capital of the province of Zhejiang. The proposed route would go through some populated areas with the tracks coming as close as 30 meters to residential buildings. Thousands of residents affected by the development gathered in the center of Shanghai’s People’s Square, to express their opposition to the provisional route and its proximity to their homes. The local government has located many opinion-collecting centers in the affected communities and has even gone through the trouble of setting up a special mailbox on the internet to receive the residents?opinions.   

In Luoyang, one of China’s ancient capital cities, a frame agreement between the local government and China Huadian Corporation to build a nuclear power plant has attracted local resident’s attention. Despite nuclear power’s positive safety record, the prospect of living next to a nuclear power plant worries citizens. The project’s opponents think that Luoyang should focus on building an optimal environment for human residence. Most worrisome of all to the residents is that Luhun Reservoir, the city’s most important drinking water source is also one of the prospective reservoirs for the nuclear plant. Although the recent snowstorm uncovered China’s power supply crunch, China’s nuclear power plants still generate less than 2% of the country’s total output, far less than in America, Japan and France who each respectively draw 20%, 25% and 79% of their power from nuclear energy. China urgently needs to increase the contribution nuclear power makes to its total output, but many residents in Luoyang say no to the plan, as they think that the city doesn’t have such large electricity needs. Luoyang they argue is surrounded by enough coal mines to generate enough power for the city’s needs.  

This is the "Not in My Backyard" syndrome. As the Chinese grow richer, they’ve come to familiarize themselves with the term that is already quite popular in Western countries. In 2006, China’s per capita GDP exceeded $2000 (according to the latest World Bank report based on purchasing power methodology, this number is $4,100). GDP per capita in China’s more developed cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing exceeded $7,000 while it reached $10,000 in Shenzhen. Scholars working in different cities across the country report that the rise in GDP, fiscal income and FDI has led to a significant drop in environmental quality. Residents of China’s cities now see the environment as a basic necessity, especially for people residing in more developed areas where people’s expectations and demands are much higher than elsewhere. Considering that real estate is a major wealth for Chinese residents, environmental pollution brought about by large-scale construction projects will directly harm the interest of the homeowners. Residents of China’s cities have been trying to participate in the in the decision-making process to reduce the negative influences of development. It is likely that investors, local governments, banks and builders will now have to contend with the growing awareness of other stakeholders such as local residents who will want to uphold their rights when comes the time to make a feasibility research report.     


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