China's authoritarian leaders show few signs this year that they are ready for political activism. But there are indications they are increasingly aware and willing to listen to public demands when it comes to the environment.
As protests gain in frequency and boldness in China, the country is experiencing its own “Not in my Backyard” revolution. Protests such as this one that occurred last December in the southern city of Haimen are not uncommon.
Haimen residents took to the streets to protest the construction of a coal-fired power plant and, after an intense stand off, the project was suspended.
Protests about a paper mill wastewater pipeline in Qidong, and rallies on Hainan island, in Shifang and in Ningbo this year have all followed similar scripts. As public dissatisfaction grew and spilled out onto the streets, officials eventually caved in.
Kevin Tu, a China energy and climate analyst, says the government is becoming more transparent as public demands grow.
“The Chinese government including both the central government and the local officials are very concerned about social stability. When the concern is about the environment that's not related to any sensitive political issue, they will be pressurized to respond,” Tu said.
A little more than a decade ago, there was very little concern in China about water quality, food safety and pollution. But that has changed.
Alvin Lin is with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing.
“Definitely you are seeing a growing consciousness about what is the environmental impact and what is the health impact of such development and how we can sort of balance development with these concerns,” Lin said.
And, it’s not always boisterous rallies that attract government attention.
Earlier this year, demands from residents in Beijing for clearer reports on the capital’s frequently smog-choked air started to grow.
When that debate intensified last winter, He Xiaoxia’s Green Beagle Institute, an environmental group in Beijing was one of several organizations that got involved.
“We had some people who started a movement called ‘My Test of the Motherland’s Air Quality’ that allowed citizens to use a simple machine to measure air quality and publish their results in a diary online. That way they could share their results and feelings with others and call on the government to take action,” Xioxia said.
Now, following widespread concern and complaints about air quality across China, local officials have begun releasing air particulate figures in many of the country's major provincial capitals and cities.
China's new leadership has also announced a new regulation that major projects must undergo social risk assessments before construction begins.
Analysts say what is crucial, though, is not just carrying out the assessments, but what officials do in response -- especially when local residents reject projects that could be a rich source of revenue for local governments.