A recent Landesa survey identifies 187,000 protests in China last year related largely to government land grabs, pollution incidents, labor issues, unfair local elections, local corruption and Tibetan autonomy. The Chinese Public Security Bureau has published sporadic data on environmental protests in years past, last estimating their numbers at around 50,000 in 2006. Since then, the numbers are widely believed to have moved higher.
China Water Risk recently spoke about the growing activism in China to David Zweig, professor in the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology school of Social Science, Director, Center on Environment, Energy and Resource Policy (www.cctr.ust.hk).
CWR: What are your views on the Landessa suvery identifying 187,000 protests in China last year?
Zweig: Environmental protests are largely rural and largely water-related, connected to specific pollution incidents. The word gets out now and people are able to share information via the web or on their cell phones. A lot of this happens in rural areas where perhaps a former rural factory that was collectively owned has been privatized, the new owner doesn’t care about the local health consequences of discharging hazardous chemicals into local water sources and people suffer. Then they realize what is going on. Word gets around that people in other places have similar problems. There develops a sense that maybe it’s not just my kid who is sick but there is a broader reason related to the factory.
CWR: Why are protests seen as a form of redress?
Zweig: My own view is that China lacks an institutional framework through which people can advance their grievances. I talk about the externalities, the political externalities of economic development. Environmental degradation is an externality and in China the people who harm the environment don’t get in trouble because of the weak laws, and because enforcement doesn’t work well. This triggers protests because people don’t have other mechanisms for redress.
Even if you go through formal legal channels people understand that you still need to make trouble to win. People know that they need, for example, to get the attention of the media to increase the likelihood of winning in court.
CWR: Protests in most places seen connected to regime change: I guess it’s important to distinguish among protests against the Beijing government and then regional or local protests, which are more common in China?
Zweig: Using local people to inform the central government about local problems is part of Beijing’s strategy. Local government is corrupt, but there is still trust in the Central government. Research shows that 65 percent of people in China approve of the job the Central government is doing. Life is improving for most people in China. Most of people’s negative experiences related to government are local. The Chinese persist in believing that the central government cares.
CWR: It seems as though the local protests and petitions to Central are part of a long tradition of villagers or people from far-away provinces appealing to Beijing to help them.
Zweig: Yes, the local protests are not necessarily looked on disfavorably because they help the Central government understand local problems. I’ve always wondered why the public security bureau announces the protest numbers and perhaps it’s to tell urbanites that there is a volcano ready to explode out there. In other words, the message is: your economic wellbeing is dependent on us, don’t add to the unstable situation through your own activism. Protests in China are still seen as largely rural phenomena.
CWR: So the protests are a release mechanism for Beijing? Beijing gets to remedy the situation by replacing local officials etc and appease the public?
Zweig: Actually Beijing officials hesitate to get involved except in exceptional circumstances. And they don’t directly encourage local protest. In 2007 -2008 during Hu Jintao’s stability campaign, Beijing gave local officials negative scores for local trouble, particularly if some rural person made it to the State Council’s Petition Office in Beijing with a grievance. They let the people come but they do try to control that. If they used protests or grievances as an incentive to actually solve the problems, that would be one thing, but they tend not too.
The situation is also complicated. If factory in a village is responsible for a pollution incident, for example, it may be the most important employer and create a dilemma for villagers as consumers vs. producers. They get and need jobs from these factories. As victims they have a strong incentive to act against the factory but not as workers. I suspect there are thousands of factories that are polluting but they are also the biggest employer in town, run by local officials, and that will affect local decisions related to the factory. This means people often don’t get redress at the local level for health issues associated with pollution.
The 1994 – 1998 period of mass privatization of factories led, I suspect, to much more self-interest among factories owners. When the factories were run by cooperatives, I imagine the villagers potentially had more influence.
CWR: Do you believe Beijing feels accountable just for maintaining growth? That the prevailing sentiment is still that as long as life continues to improve, stability will persist regardless of protests?
Zweig: There is a green component to the promotion of local officials but it’s still weaker than growth. Certainly, however, here is an emphasis in the 12th five-year plan on scientific development and sustainable growth. The main concern in Beijing at the moment among my friends is fear of Chinese-produced food, of food security. There is more emphasis on this now.
CWR: How significant are the protests, then, in the scheme of things?
Zweig: The growing numbers of protests are an indicator that the party really needs to find some mechanism for channeling complaints and instituting some form of redress. The overall problem is lack of justice in society, which people understand more and more. There is concern about political reform and instability. There is concern that China is an unjust society, that people who have power abuse that power and there are no constraints. That’s the fear in China: That you will run into official power. People don’t trust the system. People’s kids are being poisoned because one person is making money and they feel there is nothing they can do about that through official channels. China needs new institutions.
We know that one out of 1,000 formal petitions succeed and that’s not enough. Protests are most significant, perhaps to local officials, who must prove themselves to Beijing by maintaining local stability.
For companies, the growing numbers of protests, the growing discontent with the large numbers of pollution incidents, the labor concerns are a real issue.
In China there should be some form of corporate social responsibility. Should this not be a core value: That companies have responsibility to the broader society?
For more on protests read: The Rise of Protests & Reputational Risk