Citizen Influence on Mega-Projects
China added 330 gigawatts of electricity from 2005-2008. Some commentators state that China will need to add the equivalent of Britain’s electrical capacity every year for the next several years to keep up with current demands (Britain’s total capacity is 83.6 GW; the US added 105 GW from 2005-07).
China’s government sees energy security as a vital part of their country’s stability, and citizen challenges to already-planned projects that involve power plants, refineries, or hydroelectric dams meet stiff resistance from the Government. Despite this resistance, citizen-input has been present in several cases.
Chinese citizens have used public participation through the involvement of legislators and some alternative dispute resolution techniques in order to influence development of several power projects. Whether ordinary citizens can influence power projects’ development seems tied to local official involvement, face, political power, and potentially the province’s economic wealth.
How Public Influence Works
Public involvement in processes is often expressed through informing legislators who take issues to higher levels and act as “champions” for citizens.
It is rare in China for a citizen to affect power projects’ development by sitting down with officials and a neutral third party agency to determine what will happen. Instead, government officials trade power and influence to decide how power projects will be developed and where they will be placed. Ordinary citizens, however, get involved in the process by informing legislators about issues and hope they take concerns to higher levels and act as “champions” for the citizens.
Citizens Without Power (But About To Gain Power Generation)?
Chinese citizens may protest some power projects, but outright protests tend not to gain positive results.
Citizens protested the building of dams near Pubugou in 2004. These dam projects would result in many citizens in losing their land. Pubugou is located in a poor part of Sichuan where the average per capita income was 12,930 RMB in 2007. Rural residents’ net income per capita was 4,120 RMB. (average per capita income in Beijing was 21,864 RMB in 2006).
“More than 100,000 people protested over several days. . . until riot police crushed the demonstration,” and several people were killed at Pubugou over the development of the planned hydroelectric dam. (Jim Yardley, NYT, 2).
Prior to the rioting, citizens communicated with government officials and lodged complaints when the country decided to construct dams that would flood and destroy land. However, the national need for development preempted those people’s attempts to preserve the status quo, as is detailed in Andrew Mertha’s book China’s Water Warriors.
Citizens With Power (Moving Power Generation)
A different situation prevailed in Guangdong province, where citizens are richer.
Sinopec and Kuwait National Petroleum Company agreed in 2007 to construct the Nansha oil refinery between Hong Kong (xianggang) and Guangzhou in order to ease “the tension of Guangdong’s petroleum supply, [promote] . . . energy security and . . . social stability.”(Yang).
The refinery was estimated to cost around $5 billion to complete, making the project China’s largest joint venture.1 The project would process 15 million tonnes of crude oil a year2 and produce 800,000 tons of ethylene.3 The Nansha Refinery would produce refined crude oil and ethylene.4
Following the project’s approval by the NDRC in 2007, residents inside eight square km of land were removed to make room for the project. However, the project still needed to complete an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and then a half-month public comment period.
An EIA was made, but there was concern that the EIA would not be made public. Groups from Hong Kong lawmakers, to bloggers, to Greenpeace called for the EIA to be made public. The Government pushed back, telling media not to run “comprehensive coverage” of the EIA, but that they would in due time make the report public. (Chloe Lai & Shi Jiangtao, Nansha Refinery ‘Likely to Move’: Delta Petrochemical Plant Could Shift to Western Guangdong After Opposition From HK, Macau, S. China Morn. Post, Mar. 21, 2009.)
Although some citizens hoped the EIA would come out in March; as late as May the EIA was not released. (Wang).
Ultimately, disputes surrounding the Nansha Refinery situation were resolved through general administrative processes and the interference of several political movers-and-shakers in Guangdong Province.
The public push-back against the Nansha refinery found champions in government agencies to support their ideas. There was institutionalized lobbying on the part of 14 Guangdong provincial People’s Congress deputies, but there were no publicized mass protests or marches.
Guangzhou’s Special Champions
The government eventually decided to move the refinery. Government champions were noted for succeeding but little attention was paid to the citizens who initially suggested changes. Lobbying by powerful representatives in Pearl River Delta cities was likely vital to reconsideration of the refinery’s location. (See Chloe Lai & Shi Jiangtao, Nansha Refinery ‘Likely to Move’ Delta Petrochemical Plant Could Shift to Western Guangdong After Opposition From HK, Macau, S. China Morn. Post, Mar. 21, 2009).
Perhaps as a result of public cries for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report’s release, the report was issued in the same year it was made. This is quite a feat considering that historically, EIA reports have been significantly delayed or not released.
The political power of Guangzhou’s local representatives, when coupled with Hong Kong residents’ affluence and the important central policy of lowering pollution in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region helped encourage higher officials to sit down with representatives and ultimately decide to to relocate the refinery further west along the coast, to Zhanjiang.
In the wake of the EIA statement, Zhanjiang, a place that only has a yearly GDP per capita of “17,973 yuan (HK$20,400), nearly 20,000 yuan lower than Guangdong’s average”, became the new planned home for the refinery. (Ivan Zhai, Guangdong to Help its Backward West Prosper: Region is Earmarked for Heavy Industries. S. China Morn. Post, Sept. 30, 2009.)
Citizen Involvement and Power Projects in Conclusion
The Nansha refinery case demonstrates that power project permitting can be influenced and local concerns can be addressed when local officials express distaste for nationally approved policies. Local officials’ may have considerable power even when state-owned corporations such as Sinopec are involved in the siting process for large projects.
However, the Nansha Refinery situation could be an isolated case where politics and or money influenced the State’s willingness to conduct, and then release an EIA assessment and relocation, as well as the State’s openness to dialogue.
1 Chloe Lai & Shi Jiangtao, Nansha Refinery ‘Likely to Move’: Delta Petrochemical Plant Could Shift to
Western Guangdong After Opposition From HK, Macau, S. China Morn. Post, Mar. 21, 2009.
2 Zeng, supra note 212.
3 Chloe Lai, Key Report on Nansha Refinery Under Wraps, S. China Morn. Post, Mar. 20, 2009.
4Winnie Zhu, China Approves $5 Billion Sinopec-Kuwait Oil Project, Bloomberg, Dec. 4, 2007, available at http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?sid=aP3B6lsQZ3QA&pid=20601080 (last visited Nov. 1, 2009).
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