Junjie Zhang on Chinese Leaders and Environmental Protests

How Will China’s New Leaders Approach Rising Tide of Environmental Protests?

Date: November 9, 2012
Junjie Zhang, The Asia Society

Junjie Zhang

A controversial Chinese petrochemical factory expansion — born from an investment of 55.87 billion yuan (US$ 8.9 billion) by oil and gas giant Sinopec — was suspended by the Ningbo city government after a massive protest in late October. Fearing the environmental and health risks of paraxylene (PX) production, thousands of residents took to the streets.

Ningbo is not an isolated incident. Similar protests against projects involving PX, a key chemical in plastic and polyester manufacturing that can be hazardous to abdominal organs and the nervous system if inhaled or absorbed through the skin, occurred in Xiamen (2007) and Dalian (2011). This is also the third major environmental event in the past year resulting in violent clashes between citizens and local governments — the other two occurred in Shifang over a metals plant and in Qidong over a wastewater discharge project.

In recent years, “mass incidents” stirred by pollution have steadily increased in China as people become richer and more environmentally conscious. The middle class in particular is demanding a better environment. But the economic strategy that fueled three decades of rapid economic growth in China relies on increasing resource inputs and lax environmental regulation. As a consequence, the overall state of the environment is deteriorating — or improving too slowly — which disappoints many Chinese citizens. Lacking regular channels to express their concerns, some choose to vent their discontent by “taking a walk,” a form of protest against the government. Some peaceful petitions have escalated into violent clashes.

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Junjie Zhang is Assistant Professor of Environmental Economics at IR/PS. His research centers on empirical issues in environmental and resource economics. His research topics cover climate change, water resources, and fisheries. He is particularly interested in an interdisciplinary approach that involves both social sciences and natural sciences to deal with environmental problems with policy relevance.