How Do You Say NIMBY in Chinese?

The big story of the day of course is the fallout from the protest in Dalian. Let’s catch up with the basics, and then I have a quick comment on what this says about how local governments respond to public pressure.

From the New York Times:

Municipal leaders in a northeastern Chinese port city quickly announced plans to shut down a chemical plant on Sunday after thousands of protesters confronted riot police officers and demanded that it be closed because of safety concerns, state news media reported.

The protest was all about paraxylene (aka PX), a toxic chemical used in the manufacture of polyester. A recent tropical storm, the surge of which topped a seawall protecting the plant, caused a lot of folks to wonder whether PX would be released into the local environment.

I’ll skip all the details about how all this was organised, the chatter on China social media and the attempts of the government to manage communications, and the minutiae of the past few days. Check out the usual sources for that news (e.g. New York TimesAssociated PressChina Daily)

I’m more interested in what this all means to future siting decisions, assuming that the plant is indeed shut down and relocated. Not everyone believes that the promises will be kept. Others have questioned whether a shutdown had been in the works for a while, and the protest was merely coincidental.

Moving forward, we ostensibly have a chemical plant that was shut down in response to a classic NIMBY protest. The acronym of course stands for “Not In My Back Yard” and comes out of the British nuclear debate in the early 1980s. Originally, NIMBY was a pejorative term, describing residents who might favour a certain project or program as long as it wasn’t located near them.

As the environmental movement has gained steam in recent years in China, we’ve seen a steady increase in challenges to both existing, and unsafe, operations as well as decisions to site new plants. There have been some successes, many failures, and with the government always waiting in the wings nervously, trying to assess just how to respond. As is the case everywhere, the balance between industry and public safety has made all this difficult, and the specific concern in China over public demonstrations has added fuel to the fire.

So today everyone is talking about the protest itself, the role of social media, and the political implications of the government’s decision. All well and good, but I’m also wondering whether this will encourage other Nimbies out there, and I’m not the only one:

The decision in the port city of Dalian, in Liaoning Province, represents an uncommonly rapid response by the authorities to public anger. Local officials elsewhere in China have typically avoided announcing decisions during demonstrations out of fear that it would only encourage more protests. (NYT)

I’ve been on an anti-mob thing on this page for quite a few months now, worried for example that local authorities are bowing too much to online pressure in infamous criminal cases. Going back to the original use of the term NIMBY, will this PX incident also encourage folks to protest against legitimate (i.e. not unsafe) operations? Once again, we have a positive result that makes me nervous about the future.

Yesterday the government was in a bind. When you have a whole lot of pissed off folks complaining about something, it’s understandable when quick decisions are made. But Nimbyism doesn’t always lead to positive outcomes; sometimes it hinders important projects. And no one wants a factory or power station or whatever nearby that may be unsafe, particularly when they have no faith that what the company/local officials/regulators are telling them about safety is accurate.

The long term solution is obvious. You can never satisfy all the Nimbies all the time. Who wants a nuclear waste dump next door? However, you can make some of the Nimbies satisfied enough to accept reasonable siting plans, but the only way to do it is to ramp up strong regulatory standards, cut down on local corruption and communicate risks to the public in a transparent fashion.

Nimbies and other interested parties are all welcome at China Hearsay. Also look for me on Google+ and Twitter.

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