Coal, batteries, and China’s long, hot summer of protests

Two decades ago at this time, the Soviet Union was well into a startling disintegration energized by widely dispersed public dissatisfaction to which central authorities could no longer satisfactorily respond. Today, one is made rapt by a broad outbreak of public protests in China, among them, compiled in this short list by the Australian: ethnic ...

AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images

Two decades ago at this time, the Soviet Union was well into a startling disintegration energized by widely dispersed public dissatisfaction to which central authorities could no longer satisfactorily respond. Today, one is made rapt by a broad outbreak of public protests in China, among them, compiled in this short list by the Australian: ethnic Mongols protesting the roadway death of a herder by a Han truck driver (mid-May); a suicide bombing by a man upset with the demolition of his property in Fuzhou (May 26); violent protests in Lichuan after the death of a man in police custody (early June); and large demonstrations in the southern city of Guangzhou (police pictured above) over rumors that police beat a street hawker to death and manhandled his pregnant wife (this week). They are part of a broader trend -- according to the Australian account, China may have had 180,000 public protests last year.

Two decades ago at this time, the Soviet Union was well into a startling disintegration energized by widely dispersed public dissatisfaction to which central authorities could no longer satisfactorily respond. Today, one is made rapt by a broad outbreak of public protests in China, among them, compiled in this short list by the Australian: ethnic Mongols protesting the roadway death of a herder by a Han truck driver (mid-May); a suicide bombing by a man upset with the demolition of his property in Fuzhou (May 26); violent protests in Lichuan after the death of a man in police custody (early June); and large demonstrations in the southern city of Guangzhou (police pictured above) over rumors that police beat a street hawker to death and manhandled his pregnant wife (this week). They are part of a broader trend — according to the Australian account, China may have had 180,000 public protests last year.

No historical analogy is precise — no two sets of circumstances can be precisely the same, and I am not suggesting that China is headed toward public chaos. But I am arguing the opposite: that the Chinese government, grasping that social stability is key to staying in power, will do everything required to tamp down unrest.

That includes the broad crackdown we have seen in recent days across China. But, as we’ve previously written, this apprehension of destabilizing trouble is also at root in the Communist Party’s embrace of clean energy technology. In China, as in the West, energy-based pollution is inherently destabilizing.

In today’s New York Times, Sharon LaFraniere writes compellingly of the southern Chinese village of Mengxi, where a mob of some 200 people last month stormed a lead-acid battery factory serving motorcycle and electric bike manufacturers; they or family members had been poisoned. In response to that and other protests, the Party closed down lead-acid battery factories across southern China, and jailed a factory boss, writes Kathrin Hille in the Financial Times. Protests have gone on for the last 10 days in the eastern Chinese village of Yangxunqiao, also over lead poisoning, and local officials have responded by offering compensation, the FT reports.

Lead is one problem. Chinese cities are also being choked by coal, which provides some 70 percent of the country’s electricity. The conventional wisdom says that this proportionality of energy use not only goes forward, but rises substantially — coal use doubling — over the next two decades and more because there ostensibly is no better fuel source as China’s energy hunger increases.

But does the Communist Party wish to remain in power? I bet it does, and therefore, out of an instinct for survival, the Party will far rapidly than expected figure out how to make a bend in that forecasted trend of future coal use. It will scale back. Choking citizens do not equate with stability.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>
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