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Inside Story
China: Green versus growth
What will it take for China to find a balance between its economic evolution and environmental concerns?
Last Modified: 29 Oct 2012 13:14

Chinese authorities are halting work on a chemical factory after thousands of people gathered in the eastern Chinese port city of Ningbo denouncing the expansion of the plant.

"There is ... a widespread resentment about the way in which industrial development goes ahead without local consultation and is very little regulated or supervised concerning the effects that it might have on local people."

- Roderic Wye, a China analyst

The facility is a subsidiary of China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation in the district of Zhenhai and was being targeted for its use of the chemical paraxylene - a potentially cancer-causing substance.

It is not common for such a large number of people to question decisions made by state-backed businesses in China.

But as recently as July, people rallied against an industrial waste pipeline in Jiangsu after forcing their way into a government office. And as a result, that project was cancelled.

Although they are not voted into power by the majority, politicians appear aware of a new willingness by Chinese citizens to stand up for their health and the environment.

And it seems leaders and officials are now listening as the protest highlights a major challenge for the country's leadership as it undergoes a transition of power.

In just 35 years, the ruling Communist Party has made the nation a global economic powerhouse. But as the party prepares for a major change in leadership in November, Chinese are becoming increasingly vocal.

"As far as I understand, environment is a central concern and in the past two to three years we have seen some willingness ... but what I don’t see - due to the very low efficiency of the bureaucracy - most of the implementation of those policies and regulations are less forthcoming when there is no high stakes."

-  Li Bo, from Friends of Nature

Among the challenges facing the party are:

  • As the Chinese economy has grown the gap between the rich and poor has also widened, creating a less equal society.
  • An ageing population on the back of its one-child policy means that there are fewer young workers to pay for the growing number of retirees.
  • Corruption within the ranks of the party. A former party chief has been accused of abuse of power and his wife convicted of involvement in the murder of a British businessman.
  • This week, a New York Times report stated that relatives of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao became extraordinarily wealthy after he ascended to the top levels of power.
  • Finally, the country is engaged in territorial disputes with Japan over a group of islands in the East Asian Sea.

So, as protests turn violent, we ask: Can China achieve a balance between its ambitious plans for economic growth and their environmental cost? What are the challenges ahead for China's leadership as it gets ready for a transition of power?

Inside Story, with presenter Ghida Fakhry, speaks to: Joseph Cheng, a professor of International politics at City University; Roderic Wye, a China analyst and associate fellow at Chatham House; and Li Bo, a board member and former executive director of Friends of Nature - the oldest environmental NGO in China.


HIGHLIGHTS OF THE PROTEST:

  • On Saturday, riot police tried to break up the thousands-strong protest
  • On Sunday, the protest turned violent, with police using tear gas and making arrests
  • The protesters say the expansion of the chemical plant will be bad for their health
  • Zhenhai district government says the proposed plant expansion is under review
  • The protests come two weeks before the Communist Party congress
  • The November congress will reveal China's new central leadership
  • A week ago, hundreds demonstrated in China over a coal-fired power plant
  • Water pollution is among the most serious challenges China faces
  • Less than one per cent of China's 500 largest cities meet air quality standards

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