Chinese Anger Over Pollution Becomes Main Cause of Social Unrest

Pollution has replaced land disputes as the main cause of social unrest in China, a retired Communist Party official said, as delegates to the country’s legislature lamented environmental degradation.

China now sees 30,000 to 50,000 so-called mass incidents every year, Chen Jiping, a former leading member of the party’s Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs, said yesterday. Increased use of mobile phones and the Internet has allowed protesters to show their anger more effectively, he said.

“The major reason for mass incidents is the environment, and everyone cares about it now,” Chen told reporters at a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political and Consultative Conference, where he’s a member. “If you want to build a plant, and if the plant may cause cancer, how can people remain calm?”

Pollution has become a focus of the two-week session of the National People’s Congress now under way in Beijing, with Premier Wen Jiabao saying March 5 the country must balance economic development with environmental protection. State media have criticized the government this year for failing to sufficiently address the problem of tainted soil, air and water.

The government has become more open about the environment, releasing more complete air-quality data for Beijing starting in September, and promising improved pollution-control efforts. In January, incoming Premier Li Keqiang asked for patience as leaders tackle the issue.

Old Ways

“The public now demands transparency and even participation in the decision-making process for projects that may affect the environment and health,” Ma Jun, a Beijing-based environmentalist and founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said in a phone interview. “The government can’t continue its old way of making a GDP target and then decide accordingly what projects it needs.”

Concern over the environment has led to a series of confrontations between local governments and residents in the past year. In October, the city of Ningbo halted plans to produce the chemical paraxylene at a China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. plant after hundreds of residents clashed with police. Last summer, the city of Qidong scrapped plans for a waste discharge pipeline project after thousands of people protested.

The number of protests has fallen while their influence has grown, Chen said. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of mass incidents doubled to at least 180,000 per year, according to Sun Liping, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University.

Heavy Price

China has paid a heavy environment price for three decades of economic growth, Fu Ying, the spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress, said at a briefing March 4.

“The environment has become a problem the people are very concerned about, including me,” Fu said. “Every morning I open the curtains to see if there’s any haze.”

In a bid to combat pollution, Fang Fang, the chief executive for China investment banking at JPMorgan Chase & Co., said the government should impose a new tax on cars and issue fewer license plates. Fang said in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday he’ll submit the proposals to the CPPCC, where he’s also a delegate.

Concentrations in the air of PM2.5, fine particles that pose the greatest health risk, hit 234 micrograms per cubic meter at 7 p.m. near Tiananmen Square yesterday, the Beijing government reported. The World Health Organization recommends 24-hour exposure to PM2.5 of no higher than 25.

Pollution Source

The burning of coal is the main source of pollution in Beijing, according to estimates by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health.

Power companies have a social responsibility to reduce emissions, China Huadian Corp. President Yun Gongmin said yesterday. The company, one of China’s largest state-owned electricity producers, plans to spend as much as 6 billion yuan (964.9 million) this year on units to strip emissions of sulfur and nitrates.

“The continuous air haze in Beijing is so pathetic,” Yun said yesterday. “Watching people wearing anti-toxin mask in the capital is pretty embarrassing. Nobody wants to live in a polluting city for fear of getting diseases within two to three years.”