China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

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 (last visited Nov. 1, 2009).

1 April, 2010 Posted by | China Democratization, China Energy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Criticism in China

The WSJ’s China Journal called attention to an interesting analysis of Chinese being critical in their blogs by calling attention to a paper presented at the Chinese Internet Research Conference that was a content analysis “conducted on more than 500 blogs with political content and discussion of news events from 2006.”

It underlied some of the challenges facing free speech and the “chilling effect” of control in Chinese society.

More research needs to be done in regards to whether challenging ideas are being posted and deleted by censors, posted and deleted by the bloggers, or if quite simply no one dares set their opinions down in digital ink.

Only 61% of 500 blogs with political analysis studied by Ashley Esarey of Middlebury College expressed criticism of some “important” group in society. 81% of Chinese newspapers “did the same.”

But the amount of “real criticism” is overstated by the raw numbers.

Graphical Representation linked from WSJ China Journal Blog

* A chilling 0% gave implicit or explicit criticism of the head of state.

I recall one teacher I had in China who shut the door whenever we discussed political terms, and would nearly hyperventilate whenever foreigners criticized their own political leaders. She couldn’t believe that foreigners could be so audacious.

* More upsetting, 0% gave criticism of local government leaders.

This belies a system where local government leaders have disproportionate power to harm people under their control and therefore, people fear to criticize them openly (at least in print–there is plenty of criticism happening verbally). As Chen Guidi discusses in Will the Boat Sink the Water: The Life of China’s Peasants, a book written by Chinese researchers investigating allegations of power abuse, there is a systemic problem of power concentration in the hands of a few elites, especially at lower levels of government.

* 2% gave explicit criticisms of local governments.

* 2% gave implicit criticisms of local governments.

* 8% explicitly criticized the national government.

Presumably, criticism in the aggregate should be easier to do than criticising any particular cadre. It should be noted that in the past it has been all right to criticize certain figures in government; from Chen Liangyu of Shanghai (busted in a corruption probe). Also, after Jiang Zemin stepped out of power, many made fun of his antics, especially those who were upset about his handling of the SARS epidemic.

*  12% practiced implicit criticism of the central government.

Interestingly, only 2% contained criticism of foreign countries. When contrasted to popular perceptions of rising Chinese nationalism, this low proportion merits further investigation.

* 19%, combined, criticised national and local phenomenon (which would include disasters like the snow emergencies in January/February.)

* 6% criticized public figures, private individuals or celebrities. (This would include criticisms of celebrities having more than one child, which became a big issue.)

* And 10% criticised corporations. Some of that criticism, though, might not be rooted in reality; instead it might be mercenary. As a BusinessWeek article states: “Plenty of companies are willing to pay for positive spin. PR outfits hire students to write postings that boost certain brands and criticize the competition, says a staffer at a Western PR firm in Beijing. The job description of one online help-wanted ad reads: “Publicize and popularize [products] via online forums and blogs. Send at least 50 propaganda posts per day.” Workers are offered 1.5 cents per post. ” (Imagethief does more analysis of this phenomena).

* As the study demonstrates, China’s civil internet society still has a far way to go before it can be counted on as a significant independent commentator on political issues at the crucial local and macro head-of-state levels.

14 June, 2008 Posted by | China Democratization | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prospects for Chinese NGOs

Note: This article was originally written in April 2007

As of late 2003, over 142,000 non-governmental organizations in China led movements to postpone development of dams, establish environmental awareness, and provide AIDS-prevention education. And since the 1990s, then number of organizations has grown exponentially.

At first glance, reports on the growth of Chinese public organizations seem comforting. Chinese people appear to be developing rudimentary civil society. However, calling China’s “NGOs” “non-governmental organizations” is basically a misnomer.

Chinese Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) need to be registered with the State, and many are overseen by the Party to ensure their goals do not become too political. If an organization is seen as challenging the state, it risks being labeled “reactionary” and denounced as an “illegal organization.”

Chinese NGOs must be registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs and pay a registration fee to both local and national governments. The fee, according to one China expert professor based in Beijing, is relatively large, and can vary widely based on whims of local officials. To successfully establish a NGO, a group must satisfy officials at all levels of the chain of command with clever arguments or even bribes. The Chinese governing system very much is one of “the buck stops here” since any official can obstruct appeals to higher authorities. China’s hierarchical Party-State apparatus makes it difficult to petition when an official blocks progress.

Therefore, the amount of China’s NGOs remains small. The focus of Chinese NGOs also tends to be regional. As of 2003 only around 1,736 NGOs were classified as cross-regional, and less than 50 cross-regional NGOs were established each year in the early 2000s. Slow progress in establishing more NGOs indicates that the Communist Party is interested in preventing Non-Governmental Organizations from growing large enough to present a challenge to the State’s authority.

The CCP, ever concerned with its “face” and reputation as the party of the People, does not want a repeat of 1999’s disgrace, when nearly 10,000 practitioners of the Fal_un G0ng religious sect appeared in Beijing and participated in a sit-down protest of government curtailment of their activities.
To prevent future challenges, Beijing suppressed the sect, terrorizing and threatening members, then imprisoning and torturing people who refused to renounce their beliefs. In the long term, Beijing continues monitoring religious groups and non-governmental organizations to ensure that such a shameful event does not happen again.

China also starkly limits the scope of permitted NGOs. Those dealing with “sensitive” political issues, such as political reform or the welfare of workers are prohibited, or their activities are curtailed.
Of China’s cross-provincial groups, many are infiltrated by spies for the Communist Party, are directly overseen by, or work hand in hand with the government.

In 2000, a group of students and young people with an interest in debating methods for practical political reform formed the New Youth Study Group in Beijing. Just a year later, in 2001, almost all of their members were placed in jail, save two who fled, one who spoke against the group under questioning, and one who worked as a paid state informant.

Even labor unions function under the watchful eye of the Party-State apparatus. Leaders of the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions), China’s only legal labor union, are Party members and they are ultimately loyal to Party dictates. Attempts to begin other labor unions, such as 1989’s Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Union have been ruthlessly crushed, with leaders imprisoned or executed for “subverting the state.”

Organizations which actually serve citizens where the CCP’s delivery of services has been subpar, have enjoyed greater success, but still are relatively ineffective compared to Western NGOs- particularly in the area of environmental policy.

NGOs opposing dam construction and establishment of “green belts” and planting of trees find their efforts hindered by both the state and society. Because of sharp rich/poor divisions in China, trees can even be “kidnapped” by hooligans to be sold. And although NGOs have successfully delayed development of some dams which could harm the environment or destroy ancient cultural sites, the NGOs have, for the most part, not prevented development.

Groups helping prevent and provide services for AIDS-infected Chinese also proliferate. However, for long- until after 2003’s SARS epidemic, the CCP ignored the AIDS problem, and still continues to harass AIDS-activists such as Gao Yaojie who had her telephone communication cut off after receiving an award from the women’s rights organization Vital Voices.

Then where can Chinese express political views if organizations are not enough? Through petitioning the state and participating in mass protests (some, such as the Zhushan incident in March 2007 involved over 20,000 people), the Chinese people have directly challenged the State.

In a later article, I will examine the relative effectiveness of petitioning and mass protests in changing the Government’s policies and the effect they have in developing a notion of Chinese Democracy.

Several Sources Consulted:
Gao Yaojie: My Three Policies, Other People Do Not Represent Me Nor Do They Speak on My Behalf

Goldman, Merle. From Comrade To Citizen: The Struggle for Political Rights in China. Harvard University Press. 2005. 2, 169, inter alia.

Lam, Willy Wo-Lop. Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges ME Sharpe. 2006. 242-243.

  • According to Willy Lam; as of late 2003 only 1,736 of China’s 142,000 non-governmental organizations “could be classified as nationwide or cross-provincial.”
  • Zhushan— Originally source is from a CNN article March 12, 2007 (but I currently cannot locate it, so I will link to the next best thing- an article by the NYT: Kahn, Joseph. March 12, 2007. Police Restore Order in Hunan Province After Riots

    2 June, 2008 Posted by | China Democratization, NGOs | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment