After so many recent high-profile environmental protests in China, it appears that the government is looking for a systematic way to avoid these “mass incidents.” The solution? Better vetting of projects at the local level.
The Chinese government will require that future industrial projects include assessments of their risk to social stability, following several large protests around the country over pollution, a top official said Monday.
The government will also increase transparency and public involvement in decisions regarding large projects with potential environmental impact[.]
The announcement came from Zhou Shengxian, China’s chief of environmental protection, who also said that these “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) protests were inevitable given China’s economic development. In terms of rising levels of pollution in a developing country, he’s right. The question, of course, is when do developing economies turn the corner on pollution and clean up their countries.
Some pollution may be inevitable with fast growth, but the new policy reflects some other problems that are assuredly not inevitable, including lack of transparency and the inability of local residents to have some measure of influence on siting decisions. While some of the concern and anger that we’ve seen from these NIMBY projects stem from the basic facts (don’t put that dangerous stuff near my child), a great deal of the tension is also explained from suspicion and distrust of local officials. As Zhou’s statement reminds us, laying the blame on local officials in China is a perfectly acceptable form of criticism:
These mistakes involve projects that start without official approval, without proper environmental impact assessments and without an assessment of community sentiment, he said, and weak local governments may also be a factor.
As with many other State-level initiatives, now we’ll just have to wait and see what this will look like when it actually reaches these local officials. It’s often like the old game of Telephone, with the end result sometimes hardly resembling the original directive, and unlike the telephone game, all the parties involved here have their own agenda.
It comes down to interpretation and enforcement. For example, it was also announced yesterday that as of September 1, environmental impact assessments were supposed to be posted online. Have local governments followed through with this? Has there been any oversight and punishment for failure to comply?
And yet, I remain somewhat optimistic. If there is one thing that Beijing doesn’t like, it’s instability. Local officials who screw up and instigate these NIMBY protests must not be looked upon favorably by the higher-ups. New rules don’t always succeed in altering behavior, particularly when corruption (i.e., lots of money) is involved. However, if this new policy is the latest tool that can be used to better manage the decision-making process, then perhaps we’ll see some improvement, even if it is just at the margins.