China’s huge environmental problems and deep distrust of authorities lead to frequent mass street protests against waste incinerators, chemical plants and other industrial projects.
In the latest protest in Boluo county, Guangdong province in southern China, thousands of people marched through the streets on the 14th September to protest against a planned garbage incinerator. Police detained 24 demonstrators.
Judith Shapiro, a professor at American University in Washington who specializes in China’s environment and author of “China’s Environmental Challenges” said to Stuart Leavenworth, The Sacramento Bee: “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,”. However, she added that China’s Communist Party is “desperately afraid of unrest”.
In April, hundreds of residents in Maoming city in Guangdong province, clashed with police over a planned plant of paraxylene (a toxic petrochemical used in the production of polyester). In May, a protest against a planned waste incinerator in Hangzhou, south of Shanghai, also turned into a conflict.
Incinerators are used to try to dispose the increasing household garbage in China.
But some experts say authorities have been less than transparent in monitoring toxic 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.
In addition, the authorities offer subsidies for incinerator construction, which undermines China’s network of recycling and source separation of waste according to Lin. She says that the government “pays little attention to reducing waste at the source and puts all its attention into disposal.”
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.
Professor Shapiro said to The Sacramento Bee, “it is encouraging to see Chinese people standing together against further degradation of their air, water and soil”. But she noted that such protests tend to involve relatively well-off communities on China’s eastern coast. In response to these protests authorities might just relocate incinerators and other controversial projects to less affluent areas in China’s interior. “Minority nationalities in China are particularly vulnerable” said Shapiro and their protests can be tarred by the government and its supporters as separatism, “or even terrorism.”