Environmentalists in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou clashed with police over the proposed construction of a waste incinerator. What began as a peaceful protest turned violent when Hangzhou police confronted protesters blocking a highway leading out of the city.
When the demonstration turned violent, the environmentalists overturned 30 vehicles and set two police cars on fire. Ten demonstrators and 29 police officers were injured. Two people, a protestor and a policeman, suffered serious injuries.
Chinese environmentalists have grown more concerned over increasing pollution in China. The need for the government to create more jobs to provide work for the growing population has caused more trash and declining air quality. More Chinese are becoming environmentalists. They not only question governmental policies concerning pollution, they now take to the streets to protests something like an incineration plant being constructed in places such as Hangzhou.
The problem is that such protests create political challenges to the government. The Chinese Communist Party has a history of quelling public protests such as those in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Falung Gong Movement, or independence for Tibet.
Within a generation, the China has seen air quality fall and pollution increase. What China’s environmentalists want is an official party platform that addresses and enforces pollution standards.
In Hanzhou, where a local incinerator was to be constructed, thousands of people took to the streets and clashed with police. A government statement has now assured the local population that the incinerator would pose no health risks to the public. Few believed the statement, and that lead to a clash with police and overturned cars. A local woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said the people of Hangzhou worried the plant would harm everyone’s health. Her deepest wish was that any smoke emitted from the plant would not pass over her nearby village.
The Chinese environmentalists of Hangzhou did achieve a tentative victory. The district government posted an online statement saying the incinerator’s construction would not begin until the project had public support.
Hangzhou’s police wanted to show leniency to the environmentalists. They posted on Weibo, their social media account that, any protester who committed crimes during the demonstration needed to surrender themselves. Besides injuring 29 officers, overturning 30 cars, and setting two police vehicles on fire, there were other acts of vandalism. Protesters who willingly surrendered to police would receive more lenient sentences.
Wu Yixiu, head of Greenpeace’s environmental group that confronts toxics in East Asia, said people in China are losing confidence with the way local, district, and national officials handle environmental issues such as the Hangzhou incinerator. In the past, such projects were constructed and the local population had to live with the consequences. There is a growing movement among the Chinese living near such projects who will no longer sacrifice the local environment, their health, the health of their families, and those in the community in the name of progress.
Last March in the southern Guangdong province, environmentalists protested in the city of Maoming, against the construction of a refinery. Government officials backed away from the project with the promise there would be no plants along those lines without public comment.
The message environmentalists send to the government is clear. Constructing refineries or incinerators without public consent and an environmental impact statement will result in protests from the people living near those facilities.
According to Wu, the protesters who delayed having an incinerator plant built in Hangzhou created a no-win situation. The government needs a place to dispose of garbage. If the people of Hangzhou do not want it burned, the alternatives are burying trash or dumping it into the ocean. The people of Hangzhou lose because not only are there jobs associated with constructing the incinerator and maintaining the plant, there is also no proper way to treat garbage.
In order for China’s economy to expand, there must be jobs. Too many people living in rural areas move to the cities looking for work. The factories, workers, and the people supporting the factories and workers generate trash and pollution. The environmentalists of Hangzhou who delayed construction of an incinerator plant through a clash with police have established a precedence of employing violence to achieve their objectives and may have to deal with a police force unwilling to show leniency for the next protest.
Opinion by Brian T. Yates