Tea Leaf Nation

Do Chinese NIMBY Protests Actually Work?

It depends who you believe.

China's nascent NIMBY, or not-in-my-back-yard, protest movement appears to have racked up the latest in a string of wins as authorities in the eastern city of Yuhang said May 10 they would suspend plans for a giant refuse incinerator pending consultation with the public. The decision came after a day of bloody protests that saw police cars flipped and burned, and dozens hospitalized, including both demonstrators and police. Witnesses posted images of the crowds, clashes and aftermath to Weibo, China's leading social media site. Chinese police announced on May 12 that 53 protesters had been arrested.

The people power victory in Yuhang follows numerous other cases of apparent government capitulation in the face of mass demonstrations, usually environmentally related, over the last few years. These include a cancelled copper plant in the central province of Sichuan, a shelved water pipeline in coastal Jiangsu province, and a scrapped incinerator project in the southern province of Guangdong. All are considered the legacy of the first major NIMBY success in China: a cancelled PX, or paraxylene plant in the coastal city of Xiamen city in May 2007 in southern Fujian province. (PX is used in plastic bottles, and U.S. environmental officials believe long-term exposure is dangerous.) But, experts warn, those wins have not always been as definitive as they may have seemed. And rumblings in both official and social media suggest a NIMBY backlash is beginning to percolate.  

The Chinese word for NIMBY is "linbi," a pairing of the characters for "neighbor" and "avoid" that is meant to allude to the original English phrase in both sound and meaning. The word doesn't show up in most Chinese dictionaries, a sign of just how young the phenomenon is there (though the definition can be found online). Most trace the beginning of the movement to the peaceful strolling protests and banner-waving that happened in the summer of 2007 in the coastal city of Xiamen that brought to a halt plans for a chemical plant in that city. The tenor of those demonstrations, which were largely organized via SMS, was cooperative and upbeat, not antagonistic.

Not all Chinese NIMBY actions have been so tranquil in the years since. It's not clear whether this reflects a more aggressive response from police in cities where the protests are happening, or if the protestors are instigating the violence, or some combination of both. 

In July 2012, demonstrations against a copper plant in western Sichuan province's Shifang city turned into a riot scene that police broke up using tear gas. Residents of Qidong city in eastern Jiangsu province took to the streets, also in July, 2012, to try and halt a water pipeline planned by a Japanese paper company. Things got so boisterous that the city's top Communist Party official, the party secretary, ended up being stripped by the crowd. The mayor was forced to wear a T-shirt bearing protest slogans. 

Though sympathy for police is generally scant in China, the rough nature of these NIMBY campaigns is taking a toll on their public support. On Weibo, China's massive microblogging platform, one user asked on May 12 why protesters "are attacking police cars and setting them on fire" over an incineration plant planned "for the public good." Though many online commentators strongly echoed the need for more government transparency and community participation, many noted that they didn't support the violent tactics used in the fight.

State media took a harder line, with the party-friendly Global Times newspaper writing in a May 12 English-language editorial that it hoped the situation in Yuhang would signal an end to the NIMBY era. The paper urged authorities to be prudent but bold in dealing with future protests. "China has probably become the most comfortable hotbed for NIMBY, which means Chinese authorities have to take urgent measures to reverse this dangerous tendency," the paper argued. It added that Yuhuang should be "a turning point to stop the NIMBY trend."

The jury is still out on whether China's NIMBY protests work. Many apparent victories have been hollow or partial: CNN reported that a toxic chemical plant that had been halted by protests in the northeastern city of Dalian in August 2011 quietly went back into production in December 2011 after media attention died down. Even the Xiamen PX plant wasn't stopped dead in its tracks by protest. While the facility was moved away, it still went forward, but was built on Zhangzhou, a nearby island. Such relocation seems to be a common solution, an approach that doesn't fix the problem, but instead moves it down the socioeconomic ladder. Controversial, highly polluting projects that had been slated for middle-class areas may be relocated to "poorer, less politically savvy towns and villages elsewhere in the country," Alex Wang, an assistant law professor at UCLA and an expert on Chinese environmental law, told Foreign Policy

"The truth is we don't really know how well these so-called NIMBY protests work," Wang said.  "In most of the publicized cases they do seem to block the objectionable project." But perception may not be reality: "there are rumors of projects moving forward once the dust has settled," Wang added. The trend is hard to quantify though because there is little hard data and research on the fate of protested projects. Local governments and corporations don't advertise when they find a new home for a rejected plant or pipeline. 

One option that should be available but that often isn't in China is the negotiated compromise. The main hurdle is a lack of government transparency and the resulting lack of public trust. As Ding Yang, a writer for online news portal QQ, wrote in an April 4 essay about the widespread Chinese opposition to PX plants that "people not only don't trust the government, but business and media are seen as vassals of the government and so they can't be believed either." Zhu Dajian, the head of the Department of Public Policy and Management at Tongji University in Shanghai, echoed that sentiment in a May 12 post on Weibo. Zhu wrote that NIMBY disputes are becoming increasingly difficult to settle in China. In some other countries, third-party assessments are used to evaluate projects and disagreements can be taken to court. But in China, if there is a NIMBY campaign "it will be adversarial and there will be no solution," Zhu wrote. "The main reason is because the government has squandered its credibility. Whether the news is good or bad, people will disbelieve."

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

A Peculiar Phrase Finds a Home in China

Frustration at 'Catch-22's' are a common part of life here.

BEIJING — For those Chinese who have carried their tales of woe for hundreds of miles and suffered numerous bureaucratic setbacks, this seems like mockery. On April 23, China passed a new law banning petitioners from taking grievances to the central government without first trying to resolve them with local officials, even though the petitioning system, which dates back to imperial times, is supposed to allow individuals to appeal directly to higher authorities when they bump up against local bureaucracy. This latest restriction, with the ostensible goal of "streamlining the petitioning system," all but extinguishes the last hope for many desperate for a sympathetic ear from above. In fact, the petitioning system is blinkered enough that Wang Lin, a law professor at Hainan University, called it a judicial "Catch-22" in a September 2011 essay published in popular newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily.

Over time, public frustration in China with smothering red tape has helped popularize a decades-old U.S. concept. In the 1961 classic Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, a U.S. military regulation stipulates that a pilot is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions; but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved. The term Catch-22 has long since become U.S. slang for an absurd and self-defeating rule; now, perhaps as a sign of the times, it is entering Chinese slang as well. A recent search on Baidu, China's largest search engine, found over 4.9 million mentions of the term, which literally translates as "military rule clause 22."

While, for outside observers, the abuse of Chinese authority implicates high-flying officials and gargantuan sums -- on March 30, Reuters reported that Chinese authorities seized $14.5 billion worth of assets from family members and associates of Zhou Yongkang, China's former top security official -- most Chinese do not experience the wantonness of power as attention-grabbing headlines. For a petitioner lining up outside Beijing's State Bureau of Letters and Calls (the highest rung in the petitioning ladder), or a newspaper editor grappling with the baffling intention of the latest censorship directive, or a migrant worker sifting through layers of bureaucratese to decipher the conditions he must fulfill to gain an urban residency status, a different culprit bedevils daily life: the onerous laws and nonsensical policies baked into many forms of Chinese social control.

According to a report by China Central Television, China's state-owned television channel, the average Chinese citizen needs to procure 103 permits and licenses over his or her lifetime. In many cases, these permits seem intended more to elicit denial than consent. Take the country's convoluted reform of hukou, a household registration system that controls in-country migration. In April 2010, the southern city of Kunming released a draft regulation that forbade employers from hiring migrants who did not hold a residency permit there. Yet in order to obtain the permit, the regulation decreed, a migrant must first hold a steady job. With its circuitous logic, the regulation would have essentially banned millions of migrants from settling in the city. It ignited a fierce public outcry, prompting newspaper editorials with headlines such as, "Does Kunming have its own version of Catch-22?" City authorities eventually revised the regulation in its official version the following year, granting migrants a short window between finding housing and employment and applying for a residency permit.

In another case, the Fengtai district government in Beijing ruled in March 2011 that individuals under collective residency status -- a type that registers one under a school or company as opposed to under one's own name -- were not allowed to purchase apartments in that district. Affected citizens were incensed, pointing out that according to existing law, an apartment is required before one is eligible to convert a collective residency status to an independent one. Even Xinhua, the Communist Party's official wire service, condemned the policy, calling it "a Catch-22-style ruse" in an editorial, and wondered if "certain uninformed officials pulled it out of their heads." The government later rescinded the restriction under public pressure, though it still excluded those registered under their schools -- namely, recent Beijing college graduates from other provinces -- from the ranks of local homebuyers.

The more preposterous of these rules can sometimes undermine their authors. Last summer, China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), a government branch that enforces media censorship, ordered several television channels to curb their evening showings of anti-Japanese dramas centered on World War II, a genre that has come to dominate Chinese television screens in recent years. The government has tried to rein in these shows, the cartoonish characters and implausible plots of which have become the subject of derision among Chinese audiences and a source of embarrassment for propaganda authorities. Producers wryly referred to the order as a "Catch-22." They complained that other draconian SARFT rules, including restrictions on show themes ranging from time-travel to crime investigation to imperial court intrigue -- had created the situation in the first place. "Only anti-Japanese dramas seemed safe, and that's why we all flocked to it," confessed Chen Jialin, head of the Chinese Directors Association, at a conference in June 2013.

Such instances are so common in today's China that they rarely trigger more than a dry laugh from their domestic audience. In a few cases, however, they have made international headlines. Ai Weiwei, China's prominent dissident artist, found himself in a legal quandary in April 2012, when the government charged his company for tax evasion and required him to pay $2.4 million in back tax and penalties. He tried to sue, but Beijing's Chaoyang District court told him that he must first produce the official seal of his company, which in reality had already been confiscated by police, and which Ai had no way of retrieving. Eventually, the court took the case, but rejected his appeal. (A second appeal to a Beijing intermediate court met a similar fate.)

Ai was disappointed, but not surprised, for he understood he was fighting "a losing battle", as he later told CNN. "I'm more aware than ever now that I'm just as vulnerable as most other ordinary people in this country." It is this recognition of indifferent power that grants Catch-22 continuing relevance in modern China. "The many characters in Catch-22 feel like mirrors to the men and women around me," one reader wrote in January, in a review of the novel on Douban, a Chinese website akin to Goodreads. "We sneer at the system, yet we can never escape."

Photo: AFP/Getty Images