Law of large numbers: The growing gravity of Kunming’s environmental protests

Kunming’s ongoing protest against the construction of a 10mn ton petroleum refinery 40km from the city center continues to gather attention in China’s domestic media and in the international media.  Yet despite continuous coverage of the protest in China’s Global Times, South China Morning Post, the Telegraph, the Guardian, and most recently the Atlantic (among many other media outlets), questions concerning the gravity of the protests continue to pop up in online chat forums: Does a protest of 1000+ Chinese citizens in a city of 7 million have impact?  Given the numbers, does the average Kunming citizen know about this issue?  Can protests of this scale force changes to policy agendas?

ExSE’s answer to all three of those questions is an unequivocal YES.  Kunming mayor Li Wenrong would have not made an impromptu engagement with protesters last Thursday if he didn’t see the movement as a legitimate challenge to the status quo.  He followed through on his promise to open a Sina Weibo account by noon on 5/18 and since then he’s gathered more than 75000 followers.  Further, an online poll created after the initial 5/4 protest exceeded its limit of 100,000 responses within three days.  The poll asked a simple yes or no question: Should there be a PX plant in Anning? An overwhelming majority of 80% ticked “no.”  It’s no surprise that the poll’s weblink was eradicated last week.  Admittedly, there is no way of knowing whether Li Wenrong’s 75k followers are mostly from Kunming, and online polls are never without bias; but the large numbers undeniably say something and suggest that the 2000+ protesters are representative of a much larger group of concerned citizens.

Each day since last Thursday’s protest, ExSE has casually conversed with volumes of people from all walks of life – from vegetable sellers, bus drivers, computer repairmen, express couriers, university professors, development workers, mountain climbers, and foreign students and none of whom attended the 5/4 or 5/16 protests.  100% responded that they had both heard of the protest and had seen photos of protesters on social media sites like Weibo or Weixin.  In fact many were eager to show off their personal cache of protest photos downloaded to their smart phones.

Can protests of this scale force policy changes?  Yes, but the changes might not be what the protesters have in mind.  China environment expert Elizabeth Economy posted on the CFR blog Asia Unbound yesterday that China’s urban NIMBY protests force local governments into crisis management mode.  She says leaders are petrified by the possibility of mass social unrest and which suggests they are encouraged to temporarily acquiesce to the will of the people in order to get protesters off the streets.  If leaders acquiesce too much, they face losing their job and their political future – a likely fate for Li Wenrong faces if protests continue (and they will).  By cracking down too hard, a leader creates too many enemies and expends valuable political capital.  Within this threshold there is little room for paying due diligence to issues at hand, and if a leader is purged for being too lenient, his next-in-line replacement will likely be an invisible technocrat and an many steps in quality below the transparent nature of a seemingly compassionate leader like Li Wenrong.

While still on the issue of numbers, most media accounts say that the 5/4 protest had more participants than last week’s 5/16  protest.  Keeping in mind that the 5/16 happened on a workday consider the following two photos.

protest darklight crowd

The first photo was taken at 12pm on 5/16 and the second around 2:15pm on 5/4 – both taken at the peak of each respective protest.  Although perspectives vary greatly, the reader can judge which had more participants.

On Monday 5/20, officials at all 13 of Kunming’s universities were forced to participate in mandatory information sessions concerning the ongoing protests.  An official government document was passed that listed the number of the 5/16 protesters at a mere 300.  Again, please consider the photos above.  Part of the official document lists three dates (predictably one is historically conspicuous) in the first week of June as potential days of further “unapproved public gatherings.”  Officials were again reminded that they will personally be held responsible for their students’ participation in such gatherings.  But once again, the government is doing the protesters’ work for them – photos of this document are now being passed around on Weixin and Weibo.

Looking forward, Chinese citizens concerned about the environment would be wise to complement their criticisms with rational policy solutions to environmental challenges (in fact this would be wise in any country.)  The local government says the top priority for building the refinery is to relieve energy shortages in Yunnan.  The real truth is the PetroChina oil refinery is a key national project of significant strategic importance for China’s national security.  It sits at the end of a pipeline originating on the Indian Ocean and runs more than 2000km through Myanmar to Kunming.  The pipeline will drop the cost of oil significantly for China and help secure an energy route to China in the event the Pacific region becomes unstable.  NOTE TO PROTESTERS: this oil refinery is going to happen regardless of your best intentions and efforts.

But the refinery doesn’t have to be built in Kunming’s satellite city Anning, and its pollution footprint can be controlled.  As a solution to this issue, ExSE suggests the following win-win tradeoff for Kunming.  Protesters should continue to request for the local government to follow China’s environmental law by holding public hearings and to release data from environmental impact assessments, but they should consider amending their message to demand to move the refinery site to more than 100km from the city center and outside of prevailing wind patterns.  As a tradeoff, Kunmingers should be willing to sacrifice a bit of convenience for even cleaner air by instituting mandatory traffic restrictions similar to those in Beijing and Shanghai and limit the sales of care.  Believe it or not, Kunming leads all Chinese cities in the number of cars per capita and has horribly congested traffic patterns.  Harmful automobile emissions certainly already eclipse that of potential pollution from an oil refinery.  If Kunmingers really care about keeping their city green and impacting policy, then build a platform based on solutions and consider this win-win suggestion.


Filed under China, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, Governance, Myanmar/Burma, Yunnan Province

3 Responses to Law of large numbers: The growing gravity of Kunming’s environmental protests

  1. Xiao Fei

    Great article, you make a good point about the future of the refinery – it will not be cancelled. China has spent too much time and money on the pipeline and it is too significant to be scrapped. I think you make a good suggestion with your tradeoff scenario. Do you think that such a scenario is likely? What costs would be involved with moving the refinery 100km+ away from the city?

  2. Edwin Schmitt

    I appreciate your excellent points about the already existing air pollution problem and the need to solve that problem as well. This is clearly at issue in Chengdu as well. As you probably saw regarding the Chengdu protests the Pengzhou government is now arguing that the whole purpose of building the plants is to reduce the air pollution created by the combustion of poor quality gasoline. While this may be, clear documentation of this reasoning does not seem to be forthcoming. Pushing for more transparent information is definitely an important direction for all citizens in the Kunming Valley and Sichuan Basin to focus their engagement with government officials.

    That said, while you may be right that public engagement may result in adjustments to the plan, the question is if it isn’t built in Anning, where should it be built? Is it ok for the public of Kunming to decide where the plant is located? What happens to the people who will eventually have to live near the plant? Regardless of where it is built, it is highly likely that the original residents are even more socially and economically disadvantaged than most residents of Kunming. Will Kunmingers compensate them? Just a few things to consider in the unlikely event that the Yunnan Government does decide to adjust their plans due to public criticism.

    Just as an asidenow in Chengdu representatives of the Chengdu Chamber of Commerce have finished examining the details of the plant (as if they didn’t back in 2008!) and reassure us there’s nothing to worry about. Are they a non-biased group that should be speaking for the rest of the residents of the Sichuan Basin? For a fun read and a long answer to that question, check out John Osburg’s new book Anxious Wealth.

  3. East by Southeast

    Thanks Edwin. A new image on the front page of our website shows the refinery’s pollution path during the rainy season. You can see that the refinery site couldn’t have been put in a worse place (other than in Kunming proper) for maximizing pollution.

    NIMBY issues are tough since someone somewhere always loses, and this refinery will surely be built. A best practice would be for the local and national environmental regulators to enforce China’s stringent environmental laws and reduce pollution in general regardless of where the refinery site sits. In this case, if status quo prevails, Anning’s 1000000 downtown residents should be the most worried. Indeed demonstration movements are creeping up in Anning over the mountain from Kunming.

    Thanks for the book recommendation and keep us updated on the situation in Chengdu. If you’d like to write a guest blog post on the Pengzhou plant, please let us know.

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