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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Authorities Tolerate Environmental Protest in China

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: Josh Chin)

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Ningbo, China recently in opposition to a petrochemical plant they feel is a danger to public health, and forced the government to back down. Ben Carlson, a journalist for the Global Post, told host Steve Curwood about the growing environmental movement in China.


CURWOOD: Chinese cities are among the most polluted on the planet, but citizens in the coastal city of Ningbo are fighting back. Thousands recently took to the streets to protest the expansion of a petrochemical plant they feel is a danger to public health. After three days of demonstrations, and clashes between protesters and the police, the government has called the project off—at least for now.

Joining us now to discuss the protests from Hong Kong is Ben Carlson, a journalist with the Global Post. Welcome to Living on Earth.

CARLSON: Thanks for having me!

CURWOOD: Ben, first describe for us these protests… how many people are we talking about here?

CARLSON: It began smaller as all protests do in China, and by the time the weekend rolled around there were several thousand people in the streets.

CURWOOD: And things got violent, I gather.

CARLSON: Yeah, there were reports of the protesters overturning cars, and the police arrested several of the demonstrators that actually became one of the causes that people were demonstrating against later on. And actually there was some spillover into this week - there were several hundred people out on Monday, and that’s the last we’ve heard of the protest, but there may still be some activity.

CURWOOD: What has got these people so fired up?

CARLSON: Well, the city of Ningbo is prosperous and ancient – it has one of the oldest histories in China – and all of that is to say that they’ve been trying to develop industries in the city, and that has led to great GDP growth, but people have actually noticed that their health is getting worse and worse. So the announcement of this plant and the plans that they were trying to push through caused people to get very upset.

CURWOOD: What’s the substance they’re concerned about for their health?

CARLSON: Perazylene is the specific chemical that many of them are worried about. And it’s actually a chemical that has been the cause of protests in other parts of China. And it’s definitely something to be worried about – it causes central nervous system damage, liver damage, and it has proven cognitive effects.

CURWOOD: So, what does this mean – the protesters… that they’ve won or is the government just trying to slow their momentum?

CARLSON: The protesters definitely won. On October 28th, the local government announced that they were no longer following through with plans to make this expansion. The problem is nobody’s sure whether it’s actually going to be carried out. About a year ago there was a similar protest with the exact same chemical and the government promised to stop production, but it’s still going on now.

CURWOOD: Now, China historically has been very tough on demonstrations, intolerant -- of course the killings related to the Tiananmen Square, the killings in 1989 come to mind – why such a measured response this time?

CARLSON: A strange thing about protests in China is that environmental protests are actually treated more lightly. It’s not as political, so there’s less sensitivity around it. Although now, since there have been a large number of environmental protests over the last year, and they have been growing year by year, we may see that change.

CURWOOD: Of course the Chinese government is preparing for its 18th National Congress, how much do you think that the government’s decision to meet these protester’s demands has to do with the upcoming transfer of power there in China?

CARLSON: It has a lot to do with it. You can only connect the dots from a distance, but it’s coming up right after the US election, and all across China there are reports that the internet is slowing down, people have to go through much greater security, and there’s a lot of pressure on local governments to make the problems disappear. They don’t want any bad news when they’re going to be transferring the power.

CURWOOD: Now, how is the country as a whole responding to this protest? How much do people hear? Is this a subject of national news?

CARLSON: Well, the news is state-run in China, so you’re not seeing broadcasts on CCTV about it, but on social media, on the equivalent of Twitter in China, it’s huge. There were thousands of people following it, re-tweeting photos, even though they were trying to crack down on it and censoring certain words related to the protests and even blocking certain people who were trying to upload photos, it became a very big cause celebre on their equivalent of Twitter.

CURWOOD: At the end of the day, where is this headed? The success of these demonstrations is inspiring, you think, an environmental movement in China?

CARLSON: Well, just this year there have been protests in Sichuan province over a massive copper plant, there was a protest last year in a northern city called Dalian over the same chemical. There have been protests over coal plants, there’s definitely going to be more of these.

There is going to be no shortage of local governments in China that are going to try to build factories just as big and just as polluting as the one in Ningbo, and I definitely think that you are seeing a disconnected local sense of environmental awareness growing, and we could be on a tipping point of a national movement, but it’s hard to say where this is going to go.

People that I’ve talked to say this is the natural consequence of a larger middle class in China - people who have education, who have property, who have higher expectations of health and of their lives and of their children’s lives. And so the way that China has been growing and growing and has been building factories that are too dangerous for other countries, is no longer acceptable to a lot of these people.

CURWOOD: Ben Carlson is a journalist for the Global Post based in Hong Kong. Thanks so much, Ben.

CARLSON: Thank you.



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