Tea Leaf Nation

Do Chinese NIMBY Protests Actually Work?

It depends who you believe.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

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."

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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