Environmental protests have replaced land grabs as the main source of unrest in parts of the country, according to Chinese officials.
Grassroots campaigners in China are increasingly using official channels to push for more transparency when it comes to the environment.
Thomas Johnson, a researcher specializing in Chinese environmental policy at the City University of Hong Kong, says one example of this ongoing struggle is a waste incinerator near the coastal city of Qinhuangdao, in China's northern province of Hebei.
“This incinerator was half-built before it was halted by the government after opposition from the local people,” Johnson said. “I went there last year and you can see in the middle of the field there is this half-finished incinerator, with a couple of guards watching it and growing vegetables within the compound."
As a growing number of residents and nongovernmental organizations question the environmental impact of large-scale projects, such starts and stops are becoming more common.
Waste incineration has long been a controversial issue in many countries, with opponents focusing on pollution's impact on public health.
How much dioxin
China's limits on pollution by industrial plants are weaker than those of many other nations, and incinerators can release 10 times as much dioxin as similar plants in the European Union. Dioxin and related compounds are highly toxic and are linked to cancer and birth defects in people exposed to high levels of contamination.
China already generates one-quarter of the world's total waste, and that amount increases by eight percent every year.
City governments are under great pressure to solve their mounting trash problems, and incineration is an increasingly popular choice. The central government aims to have 300 trash-burning plants in operation by 2015 - twice as many as now. But opposition from local communities has halted work on many plants, at least temporarily.
“Even if they encounter opposition, it is unlikely that local governments or construction companies will say clearly that they will not build the incinerators,” said Mao Da, a researcher at Beijing Normal University who studies solid-waste treatment techniques. “Between the developers' attitude and citizens' persistent opposition, we sometimes realize that the chance of completing some of these plants is very low."
Mao says the Chinese public does not trust the government to enforce technology and safety standards for incinerators, and there is growing concern about the potentially grave risk posed by increasing airborne concentrations of dioxin and other poisons.
Opposition to incinerators takes various forms. In Guanxi, signs deploring "smelly" conditions hang from high-rise apartment windows while protesters in Guangzhou ride the subway wearing gas masks.
Apart from environmental concerns, Johnson says government agencies' lack of coordination also is a source of trouble.
“One part of the government approves an incinerator in a certain place," Johnson said, "and another part says, 'Let's develop this area for middle-class housing.'”
By the time people move into their new homes, Johnson says, too often they discover an incinerator will soon be built nearby.
“In some cases, the house has been marketed to them as being in a very 'green' area - clean air - and they are suddenly very upset that they found this incinerator at their doorstep."
Chinese law mandates that authorities study an incinerator's impact before it is built. Guidelines for placement of waste-treatment plants must be observed, and there must be consultation with people living near the site.
Bending the rules?
However, NGOs say environmental departments often bend the rules.
In the case of the half-built Qinhuangdao waste incinerator, the impact assessment reported that 100 people were surveyed, and there was unanimous agreement on the project.
Members of the group Friends of Nature checked with the residents named in the official survey, however, and found that none of them had ever heard about the questionnaire.
Waste processors and government officials charged with protecting the environment also have recently come under scrutiny for their reluctance to disclose emissions data.
The environmental group Wuhu Ecology Center asked 122 plants that burn trash to provide information about pollution discharges more than two years ago. As of last month, there was no response from a majority of the plants.
“What we asked for is information that they are bound by law to make public, and yet they have not complied so far,” said Ding Jie, a volunteer at the Wuhu Ecology Center.
She says such unwillingness to disclose information is harming the public, which should be aware of the health risks for those who live near incinerators.
As consumer consumption rises in urban areas and more goods and garbage pile up, most observers agree that solving China's trash problem will not be easy. But many believe that transparency could go a long way toward easing popular opposition to incinerators, and help restore the public's trust in government.