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.

Footnotes

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

“Rule by Law” Reform

Stability, modernization, and success as a globalized 21st Century state are goals for which the Chinese government is reaching.

However, a culture of weak intellectual property rights and “Rule by Law” rather than the “Rule of Law” present unique challenges. In China, modernization means more choices for the common people. As choices become attainable, common people often clash with established authority.

Inspired by the Shanghai police officer stabbing case, I examine approaches China might take to deal with lawlessness and to craft “pressure valves” to permit its system to adapt and to address emerging challenges. (Note: The NYT had an excellent series on “Rule by Law.”)

The Pressure Builds

When people feel powerless, they can take out their aggression against public authority figures. In Shanghai, one man sought “revenge after officers from the station interrogated him last year for riding an unlicensed bicycle.” He “sued the officers who had interrogated him for psychological damage, but the claim was rejected,” and ultimately he attacked a police station and stabbed six officers to death.  

What drove Mr. Yang to such an act? People wonder if “injustices carried out by the Shanghai police” led to his brazen action. Some postulated that his genitals had been damaged by the police (AP), others assumed less or more vicious forms of punishment. Others argue Yang was just insane.

Option 1: Ignoring the Situation

What is important, however, is not the status of Yang’s guilt or innocence, but the reaction of Southern Weekend, a Chinese newspaper, and those of a number of Chinese. When the trial was held behind closed doors, some people clamoured for it to be heard in the light of day so people could know the trial was conducted fairly. The case concluded behind closed doors despite their protests, and Yang was sentenced to death. He is currently appealing the decision.

Closed-door trials can work, but if people believe the government is abusing power, then support for the government can decrease. For a system to work “above the heads” of the common people, the common people must either trust the government is morally superior, intellectually superior, or both. And with rising education and wealth spreading across China, more and more people are beginning to doubt whether or not the Communist Party really has all of China’s “best and brightest.” Still, in a 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 89% of Chinese were polled as satisfied with their government. Interestingly, only 34% were satisfied with their own life. There is possibility that as more Chinese become middle class, they will begin to demand the government “help” them more so they can achieve happiness. Comparatively, the US numbers were 51% and 65% [h/t Mei-Zhong Guanxi]).

This article by Prof. Carl Minzer suggests an attempted governmental cover-up of social unrest.

Option 2: Expanding Rights

Discontent directed against closed trials, presumed abuse-of-authority and lack of disclosure is bubbling stronger and stronger with nearly 87,000 “mass incident” protests in 2006, even though by all measures, Chinese citizens’ legal rights are expanding. “[T]his summer, criminal defense lawyers got the right to meet with their clients without official permission, request evidence from prosecutors and call witnesses in court” (AP). And that is in addition to China’s Labor Contract Law (June 2008) (Also see HERE), and its Property Law (2007), both of which expanded citizens’ rights and remedies.

These laws have spurred citizens to litigate. China Law Blog noted that in the wake of the Labor Contract Law; “[s]ince last year, labor disputes have increased in Beijing’s Chaoyang District People’s Court by 106%, by 231% in Nanjing’s Qinhuai District People’s Court, 126% in Shenzhen, 132% in Dongguan and 92% in Guangzhou.”

Option 3: Stop-Gap Patches

Weng’an County’s riots, proximately precipitated by a girl’s drowning, provide another example of China struggling to deal with accountability in the midst of a system that regrettably allows a good deal of opportunity for corruption and abuse-of-power.

Often, China’s central authorities deal with injustices and abuse-of-power by applying stop-gap fixes, like dismissing the Weng’an Party commissar and police chief. But finding ringleaders or scapegoats will only succeed in quashing corruption and abuse if the Chinese system is not plagued by systemic problems.

It appears, based on the NYT articles and prior unrest, that China’s “rule by law” may result in significant systemic problems. Still, the Chinese could prove Western analysts incorrect; their problem may not be systemic- even though 87,000 mass incidents in 2006 seem to imply the problem is widespread and beyond possibility of being addressed by stop-gap fixes.

Conclusion

Societies in socioeconomic and legal flux are presented with unique problems. In the 18th Century, the French system exploded into rioting and unrest. Louis XVI and his regime were overthrown, and in their wake, there was chaos. In 20th Century Russia, the Tsar was brought down, likewise in flames, even though he, like Louis XVI, was by some measures “liberalizing” the country in steps. In contrast, China’s path to modernity could be more like that taken by the United States in the early 20th Century.

In the United States, the late 19th and early 20th Century saw the expansion of rights for millions of previously oppressed groups that culminated with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. A system of “rule of law” and an understanding by citizens, judges, lawyers, and juries of what that means took nearly 200 years to develop (and is still developing) in the United States.

Over the course of a century, America confronted turmoil with first the Progressive Movement, and later the Civil Rights Movement. In China, it can be argued that a “rights reform” movement is already underway. China often likes to describe how it is “different” and “unique” (Fool’s Mountain has an opinion on this phenomena.), so perhaps it will not suffer the social upheaval of 1960s-America or Industrial Age Europe.

Regardless of any perceived differences, China will still need to confront problems similar to those suffered by these countries as the Chinese people gain wealth, leisure time, become more involved in the market, gain greater mobility, and discover political power.

Hukou registration saw reform in 2003 after public outcry reacted to an embarassing situation where a legal city resident was beaten to death by police officers during questioning. At least lip-service to further reform continues (March 4, 2008). [The Chinese Law and Politics Blog, by Prof. Carl Minzer has a discussion on difficulties surrounding hukou reform.]

To respond to people’s demands for more attention and more autonomy, the government will choose whether to expand rule of law; encourage people to accept the status quo (which appears to be increasingly less likely an option); or close off influences that encourage the common Chinese 老百姓 to demand greater power.

Lawlessness might result from a society that fails to create a pressure-release valve for pent-up emotions. Rule of Law would allow China to follow the path taken by Europe and the United States. It will be interesting to see which choice China takes.

Appendix

* Or is this really a dualistic “either/or” choice of increasing lawlessness/tension or ultimate reform toward “rule of law” in China? Will China turn insular again if it must confront chaos? I welcome your opinions on the subject in the Comments.

* EastSouthNorthWest almost always has the most in-depth stories regarding mass incidents in China, if you’re interested in doing further research on that issue.

* Previously, in Rule of Law, I discussed why establishing a legal culture in China is key to ensuring “human rights” and to empowering individuals.

17 September, 2008 Posted by | China Law | , , , , | 3 Comments

Isn’t That Odd? : Segways & Flamethrowers

Here’s an amusing article describing Chinese preparing for anti-terrorism drills.

Proximately from Engadget-but originally from Xinhua

Xinhua’s photo gallery is here: Although the Segway use can be justified (sort of- though they would seem to be pretty difficult to balance under stress conditions), a question arises looking at Xinhua’s photos, why is a flamethrower necessary for anti-terrorism drills at the Olympics?

 From Xinhua

In recent years, China installed fire extinguishers in Tiananmen to prevent people being lit on fire, after certain high-profile self-immolation protests in 2001.

One wonders how much danger the Beijing security details are expecting to handle– and with what degree of deadly force. I spoke with an Olympic volunteer and was told they were very concerned, as all people at all Olympics are, about incidents at entrances to Olympic venues.

Another especial reason for Beijing’s security worries; As recently as May 2008 an unexplained explosion that may have been intentional, went off on a Shanghai bus. Xinhua didn’t initially attribute the explosion to terror, but TIME Magazine and people on the ground have suspicions. At minimum, following the explosion, Shanghai instituted new regulations about carrying certain materials on buses and increased anti-terror patrols, which leads one to believe that there may be some reason for these heightened concerns.

With luck, nothing untoward will happen in China during the Olympics. For China’s sake, if something does happen, hopefully the police/military response is proportional and appropriate and that the coverage of said problem is transparent.

One thing that seems quite Odd is China has long believed very strongly that ignoring a problem, even after the problem has become well known, allows the country to save face. By covering-up details, forbidding publication of negative stories, and making everything seem happy, Chinese officials seek to win accolades (As I discuss in an earlier article).  Thus, they barred reporters from T$$$bet during the recent disturbances, then denied Chinese-instigated abuses (which may or may not have happened- since the West lacked independent reporting all it really has is a “monks said/Beijing says” dichotomy).

Simon Elegant at TIME Magazine thinks the media’s coverage style is changing and the Chinese government is more willing to admit to problems rather than covering-them up; but he also points out difficulties suffered by Chinese trying to discuss incidents online.

Oh China, such an odd and amusing, but often frustrating place.

7 July, 2008 Posted by | China Stability, Isn't That Odd? | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Unequal Wealth, Inflation, and Harmonization

President Hu’s policy of a harmonious society, which encourages a move toward slower, more manageable economic growth informed by environmental awareness and greater concern for the poor could be seen as a great leap forward for the Chinese toward a sustainable development model. However, the policy has increasingly resulted in greater degrees of “harmonization” (read about it and see a bizarre chinese video HERE) and suppression of free speech as the society grows increasingly challenged to appeal to ever-diverse interests.

In order to ensure harmoniousness in the face of unique challenges to China’s future, its leadership (and HERE for a more indepth look at the leaders’ CV’s) might be forced to take drastic measures to contain stresses originating from China’s rapid, but inequitable economic growth.

China’s economic progress continues at a rate of greater than 10% for the past several years, and despite cyclical shocks and a worldwide economic downturn, the Chinese economy appears strong enough to expand. This growth rate and the growth rate of other developing countries brought exuberance to the Shanghai stock market, with stock prices up to an average of 42 percent of valuation over earnings as of July 2007, according to Bill Powell of TIME Magazine. Although the Shanghai stock exchange was down 21% in 2008 by February, and was down nearly 50% in April from its high of 6,124 points reached in October 2007, the Chinese economy is still on pace to grow a bit over 9 percent, according to the World Bank.

With such high and constant growth rates over the past decade (where nearly all years recorded over-ten percent economic growth), inflation is becoming a problem. Even worse, food prices are rising higher than China’s overall rate of inflation. As China’s inflation grows, wealth disparity and purchasing power parity becomes a greater source of social instability as people lose access to amenities they once could easily purchase.

China’s Gini coefficient, used to measure income disparity, is now above .45, according to the 2003 UN Human Development Report, a number above which demonstrates a potentially dangerously unequal society on par with many economically imperiled Latin American states. In comparison, China in 1980 boasted a .33 Gini coefficient (higher numbers indicate greater disparity), according to AsiaTimes. The United States boasts a .47 Gini coefficient, up only eight points from 1970, according to Arthur Brooks in the Wall Street Journal.

Seeking a balanced economic growth rate was a major goal of President Hu Jintao’s first term. However, Hu’s “Go West” campaign to develop poorer interior regions failed to spread wealth as rapidly as was hoped– much more work needs to be done. This lack of development, and increase in rising foodstuff and transportation prices risks increasing the amount and vehemence of public protests.

Interestingly, (and ignoring for the moment the mass T1b1tan unrest) the reported numbers of protests has actually declined, but China is notorious for ordering newspapers not to report embarrassing stories. Jonathan Watts of Britain’s The Guardian discusses China’s press crackdown against “negative stories” in detail, and the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post and other media outlets routinely provide evidence of some Chinese officials’restrictions on individuals, and of the country’s greater crackdowns on the free speech of the press. (Staff Reporter. “Free media for Games = media free of bad news, one city says.” South China Morning Post. March 20, 2007.); also see an April 30, 2007 report on: “The Olympics countdown – repression of activists overshadows death penalty and media reforms” and of course the newest info on curtailing press freedoms in coverage of the Sichuan earthquake.

As worries about rising inflation and unbalanced economic growth increase, China becomes increasingly secretive, restricting press freedoms. Today makes me recall something that happened at the end of the decade of the 1980s; a time of widening press freedoms, rising inflation, exhuberance of the future and many people gaining wealth while others were left out. This led to protests and marches that were eventually suppressed to international disdain– a suppression that was partially modelled on how President Hu, then Provincial Secretary of T*b*t cracked down on social unrest there.

If economic inequalities lead to greater citizen unrest, it is likely President Hu will look to his past experience and party ‘successes” and enact increasingly draconian restrictions, rolling back much of the late-20th Century’s increased journalistic openness- with a goal of preserving stability and maintaining a harmonious society.

The question is, though, when will these economic inequalities come to a boiling point? It isn’t going to happen before or during the Olympics, but depending on what happens with China fuel subsidies, food prices, and inflation, the protest-barometer could be interesting to watch sometime after February or June 2009.

-An earlier version of this article was written in October 2007

5 June, 2008 Posted by | China Economy, China Future | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment