China's Environmental Movement Comes to Life

Citizen activists in several Chinese towns and cities have recently taken to the streets to protest polluting industries.  This represents a dramatic break from the decades of government-enforced silence that have allowed heavy industries to operate with minimal environmental safeguards.  Yesterday the local government of Shifang, in Sichuan Province, responded to mass demonstrations against a giant copper smelter by canceling plans for the project.  Arrests were made, but all detainees have been released, and on a Chinese microblog akin to Twitter, "Shifang" was the most widely used term earlier this week.

As Keith Bradsher reports in today's New York Times, citizen opposition has led to the announced shutdown of a number of industrial plants in China over the past year.  Plans for a coal-fired power plant in Haimen, near Hong Kong, were canceled because of citizen opposition in December; a solar company that was inadequately controlling pollutants in Jiaxing closed its doors last September following local protests; and officials in August 2011 announced that they would be relocating a petrochemical plant in Dalian after more than 12,000 demonstrated against its local impacts.

Writing about China in Harvest the Wind, I quoted a Shanghai-based American lawyer, Charlie McElwee, describing China's environmental movement as "tame," and I commented that "there is no real opportunity for members of the public to voice their concerns about badly sited projects."  Those observations are fast losing their currency as Chinese environmental protests gain visibility and strength.  Though China's rapidly expanding wind industry has yet to be targeted by local citizens, developers may soon find that their plans for new wind farms are subject to a higher level of public scrutiny than in the past.