Xiamen: the triumph of public will?

Li Datong
16 January 2008

In November 2006, a project to build a xylene (PX) plant in the city of Xiamen, Fujian province, got the go-ahead. Investment in the project stood at 10.8 billion renminbi (RMB) [$1.5 billion], and the plant was scheduled to go into production in 2008. The project, Xiamen's largest ever, was expected to add RMB80 billion to the city's gross annual product. Planning for the so-called "industrial project", appeared to be correct: the National Development and Reform Commission had given its approval, and the State Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa) had agreed "in principle".

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"The root of slave labour in China" (26 June 2007)

"Beijing baozi and public trust" (25 July 2007)

"The next land revolution?" (8 August 2007)

"Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

"China's media change: talking with Angela Merkel" (6 September 2007)

"Shanghai: new history, old politics" (19 September 2007)

"China's leadership: the next generation" (3 October 2007)

"China's communist princelings" (17 October 2007)

"China's Youth League faction: incubus of power?" (31 October 2007)

"China's age of expression" (14 November 2007)

"China's modernisation: a unique path?" (28 November 2007)

"Taipei and Beijing: attitudes to historical truth" (12 December 2007)

The completion of the project was also set to bring prestige to local government officials. In January 2007, a piece appeared on the Xiamen local government website proudly proclaiming that the new plant was "a world-class petro-chemical giant emerging on the west bank of the Taiwan Strait." Under the auspices of local authorities, the project progressed at a rapid pace, and in only forty days, 2000 mu (133 hectares) of land was requisitioned.

But the city officials had "forgotten" one vital thing - the views of the millions of residents of Xiamen and its environs who would be most directly affected by the plans. In March 2007, Zhao Yufen - member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), academician at the Chinese Academy of Science, and a professor at Xiamen University - raised a motion on the project at the meeting of the CPPCC in Beijing which addressed their concerns.

The motion, signed by 105 members of the CPPCC, argued that the PX plant was set to be located too close to residential areas. Any leak or explosion would put over a million people in danger. Regrettably, the motion was not adopted by the relevant departments at national level, or by the local government. In fact, construction of the PX plant accelerated.

The stick bends

Only at this point did the people of Xiamen - who originally had no idea what PX was - realise that plans were afoot to build an industrial monster that threatened to destroy the environment of their beautiful resort city. They learnt that PX had been the culprit when, in November 2005, explosions at a chemical plant in Jilin led to severe pollution of the Songhua river. The public could not tolerate the situation any longer. Citizens of Xiamen, knowing that the local government would not approve an application for a protest, used the internet and mobile-phone text-messages to organise a march.

On 1 June, over 10,000 people took to the streets to protest the plans for the plant. The official media did not report on the event, but online "citizen journalists" from all over the country flocked to Xiamen to cover the demonstration. They posted real-time reports on the internet, including photos and video. The accuracy and depth of their reporting put the official mainland media to shame.

The government eventually realised that it could no longer ignore public opinion. The PX project was suspended while a third-party environmental appraisal took place. The public was to be allowed to participate. However, the local government made attempts to place restrictions on the public's ability to exchange information. In July 2007, it prepared a by-law which would prevent people posting "damaging or unhealthy" information on the internet. The result was a public outcry, and the Xiamen authorities were forced into a U-turn and dropped the proposed law.

A public meeting was finally convened on 13-14 December 2007, with 106 "citizen representatives" present. 90% opposed the PX project. At last, the provincial leadership released a statement outlining its own stance. It said: "In the face of such public opposition, we need to enter into careful consideration of the matter. We should look at the problem using the principles of the scientific view of development, democratic decision-making and valuing public opinion."

On 19 December, the official People's Daily newspaper declared: "Expert opinion on the matter is tending towards unanimity, and abandonment of construction is the preferred course of action." The decision to abandon the PX project has now been taken.

The next mountain

Also on China's politics in openDemocracy:Andreas Lorenz, "China's environmental suicide: a government minister speaks" (6 April 2005)

Lung Ying-tai, "A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao" (15 February 2006)

David Wall, "The plan and the party" (29 March 2006)

Christopher R Hughes, "Chinese nationalism in the global era" (18 April 2006)

Kerry Brown, "China's top fifty: the China power list" (2 April 2007)

Kerry Brown, "China's party congress: getting serious" (5 October 2007)

This was a rare victory for Chinese public participation in politics. The Xiamen local government has admitted the need for "government and people to grow up together", and the media has praised the events as a "victory for public opinion."

The eventual outcome was beneficial for both sides. The public will not be put in danger by the plant, and the local government was seen to be improving in governance and evolving in policy-making. However, if we go further and think of the issue in terms of the political process, we see that there is still huge room for improvement in the way things are done.

Article 99 of the constitution of the People's Republic of China states:

"Local people's congresses at different levels ensure the observance and implementation of the Constitution, the statutes and the administrative rules and regulations in their respective administrative areas. Within the limits of their authority as prescribed by law, they adopt and issue resolutions and examine and decide on plans for local economic and cultural development and for development of public services."

Within the current framework, it is clear that the Xiamen people's congress has the power to investigate and decide on large construction projects. It is a shame that the people of Xiamen did not make any attempt to transfer the right of decision out of the grip of party and government departments, and into the hands of the local people's congress. They missed out on a good opportunity to put the constitution into practice.

In modern society, there will never be unanimity in public opinion. There will always be conflicts of interest and opinion, and decisions cannot be taken just by looking at whichever group sends more people onto the street to protest.

Under the Chinese system only the people's congresses have the right of final decision. They are filled with elected representatives and decisions are taken by vote. The people of Xiamen should have demanded that the representatives they chose acted on their behalf. They should have asked their people's congress to investigate and decide on the PX plant case; if the congress failed to act according to the will of the people, then the people have the legal right to impeach their representatives.

If the aim is to turn the people's congresses from rubber-stamp organisations into genuine fit-for-purpose legislatures that abide by the constitution, the only option is to repeatedly force them to prove themselves. Only then will they become a legitimate force for balancing the autocratic power of party and government bureaucracy.

The occasional triumph of public opinion is not the mark of a reliable system (see Jianqiang Liu, "Planning failure in Xiamen", chinadialogue.net, 12 December 2007). Victory for political process is true progress. The people of Xiamen have already become a symbol of public expression. Let's hope that in the future they can also become a symbol for advancement of the political process.

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