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Why China’s leaders respond to nimbyism

August 24, 2011

By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing

The sight of tens of thousands of ordinary Chinese citizens peacefully marching through the coastal city of Dalian on Sunday must have sent shivers up the spines of China’s leaders.
The protesters were demanding the government remove a toxic chemical plant from reclaimed land on the waterfront just 20km from downtown Dalian. Within hours officials had pledged to close the Rmb9.5bn ($1.5bn) project and shift it elsewhere.
Plans to build a factory making the same chemical – paraxylene, which is used in paints and plastics and is fatal to humans exposed to it for extended periods – were abandoned in the southern city of Xiamen a few years ago after similar protests there. In Shanghai, plans to extend a high-speed magnetic levitation trainthrough the city centre were cancelled after large crowds gathered for similar loosely organized protests in 2007.
But the fact the government capitulated so quickly and so fully in Dalian shows a growing concern that such localised protests over specific issues could morph into something more challenging to the political status quo.
What must be especially worrying for Chinese policymakers is the credibility such protests lend to the theory that authoritarian societies inevitably start to democratise when they achieve per capita gross domestic product of $5,000-$6,000.
In 2010, China’s per capita GDP was about $4,660 at current exchange rates, but in purchasing power terms China has already passed the point where democratisation becomes likely.
The autocratic Communist party has long rejected this theory on the grounds of Chinese exceptionalism, and many of the idea’s chief opponents abroad have debunked it and held up China and its lack of democracy as their main exhibit.
But another theory, put forward by Paul Collier, an Oxford university economist and author of Wars, Guns and Votes, suggests that a more challenging future may be in store. Autocracies actually suffered more political unrest as they got richer. He put the threshold at about $2,700 per capita GDP. If he is correct, China’s continued rapid growth makes it increasingly prone to political unrest.
Unofficial statistics published by a respected Chinese academic this year show that “mass incidents” – riots, protests, strikes and the like – roughly doubled in the past five years, to about 180,000 incidents last year, even as the economy boomed.
Much of the legitimacy of the Communist party today derives from its ability to deliver rapid economic growth. But, if Prof Collier is right, this short-term fixation on GDP could be sowing the seeds of future trouble.
Step back and think about the Dalian chemical plant for a moment.
When the city’s residents were poorer and their main concern was ensuring they had enough to eat, they undoubtedly welcomed the economic boost and jobs that a new chemical plant brought to their city.
But now that most of Dalian’s citizens have enough to eat, they can afford to worry about their children being poisoned if a freak accident were to cause a leak – as almost happened last week when a tropical storm threatened to wash the plant away. This trend is borne out across China: greater wealth has empowered people to take a stronger stand for their rights.
“It’s a Catch 22 situation for the government because it recognizes in the short term that growth is the only way to keep the lid on things. But, each year, that growth means the problem gets harder,” Prof Collier says. “This was also the message of Tunisia. The Arab uprising broke out in the most economically successful model autocracy in Africa.”
And that comparison is why China’s rulers will be worried by what they saw in Dalian on Sunday.

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