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China’s dream

With a focus on enviornmental issues, LS provides the second installment of the PN series about activism in China.

China has a long history of slogans and set phrases. During the era of Mao’s Charimanship hundreds of them were coined and printed on coloured posters which were then spread all over the country and in doing so propagating the message and line of action of the leadership. This tradition is still in place today, adapting to the time and context of the 21st century. If in 1966 a common slogan was along the lines of 'Boundlessly loyal to the great leader Chairman Mao, boundlessly loyal to the great Mao Zedong Thought, boundlessly loyal to Chairman Mao's revolutionary line', then Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist party, has simply chosen to cut words from it today and is pushing forwards his own, new slogan: ‘China’s dream’.

Since its first appearance last November, this new phrase has been constantly used in official speeches, and as in the previous tradition, it has spread out across public walls all over China.

Nevertheless, despite its spread it is unclear as to what there is behind it in actual terms. During his summit with Obama on the 11th June, the Chinese leader once again talked about ‘China’s dream’, this time describing it as a ‘dream of fortune, of minorities revival, of people’s happiness, justice, development and cooperation’. But what does Xi Jinping actually mean when saying that China has a dream of happiness, or of development? Whose happiness? And whose development?

In order to achieve development, mainly understood as economic growth, and masked by the chimera of trickle down of wealth, in the last decades China has undertaken huge industrialisation projects with massive human cost, and the country is now close to environmental suicide. Water and air pollution are constantly reaching higher levels and the China Daily just one month ago called most of the country’s major cities ‘barely suitable for living’. This reality, that once was affecting mainly the most industrialised areas on the coast, recently has spread to western provinces, such as Yunnan and Sichuan.

It is specifically in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province, that over the last month hundreds of people have repeatedly taken over the city centre streets to demonstrate against the local government’s environmentally blind industrial policies.

Demonstrations are targeting the upcoming construction of a new petrochemical complex; most specifically, the environmental concern is around the production of paraxylene (PX), a carcinogen used in the manufacture of polyester fabric and plastic bottles, and the way it would affect air and water once let into the atmosphere.

These actions taking place in Kunming are just one of the many episodes in which civil society is demonstrating and engaging in discussions around the establishment of chemical plants. Indeed, throughout China environmental protests were up 120% from 2010 to 2011; in the last couple of years the most well-known cases of environment-related protests have been in Dalian and Ningbo where in 2011 and 2012 thousands of people demonstrated against the expansion of production of PX.

The results of these protests are mixed: whilst at first in Dalian officials pledged to shut down the PX plant it has since been opened once again. In Ningbo protests have continued even after the authorities pledged to halt the PX project in part because suspicion of the government runs high and protesters don’t trust the promises they get.

The involvement of civil society in environmental issues is evident not just in the number of those who are taking part in the demonstrations but also in the constant growing number of online discussions in forums, blogs and social networks; thousands of people all over the country are discussing the Kunming case online. In platforms such as QQ and Weibo different opinions are represented, showing heterogeneity in the way citizens are thinking and talking about the environmental challenge and the establishment of the new petrochemical plant. While it is possible to find posts and comments where it is explained in accessible terms how the production of PX affects the environment, other posts report the concerns of students who have been menaced by their institutions in relation to perhaps having taken part in demonstrations. Also, whilst many comments are against the plants, others condemn the younger generations for demonstrating against the country. The internet has thus become a common platform for discussions and debates where users have the chance to express their opinion and discontent in ways that often are not reachable outside of the online world.

The protests of Dalian, Ningbo and Kunming, which largely involve middle-class urban residents, are not aimed at a revolution. People don’t ask for a change of government, but for better government. Civil society is increasingly concerned about issues of environmental degradation and often resists the growth-at-all-costs model pushed in the last decades, thus representing a shift in the meaning of the China’s dream.

Whether this shift will be taken into consideration by the leadership, and the way in which Beijing will respond and adjust to it, is still not clear. Nevertheless, some steps towards an acknowledgment of the environmental problem have been taken: earlier this week for example China held its first ever National Low Carbon Day and several of the megacities instituted cap and trade programs aimed at limiting pollution levels. Among others, the government of Yunnan province (of which Kunming is the capital), launched a carbon sequestration program of its own: from this deal, the Yunnan Forestry Investment Company will sell carbon credits worth 174,000 USD to an iron and steel company based in Guandong with part of the revenues being reinvested to the plant and maintain a forest of bamboo groves that will sequester carbon equal to the amount of credits sold.

It is hard to predict whether these programs will be successful and what changes they will actually entail in the path of development and industrialisation of the region. It is also very unlikely that those who have suffered the most from environmental degradation and water pollution, such as farmers and peasant, will receive any benefit from the carbon credit sale. These new programs might just be an instrumental concession from the regional government with the aim of taking people’s attention away from the construction of the petrochemical plant, or from the complete degradation and pollution of the Dinachi Hu, the lake just outside Kunming. What is sure is that a national low carbon day or carbon sequestration programs are, if anything, just the first, little steps towards a well-needed shift in environmental policies.

Observing the way China will deal with the environmental issue and with the pressure coming from the civil society will be a test to understand what is behind ‘China’s dream’. More wealth? An ulterior increase of GDP, no matter what? Or rather a shift towards more comprehensive developmental policies? The next months will be crucial to understand what line the new generation of leadership will decide to take for the future of the country and whose happiness and whose development is at the aim of the new ‘China’s dream’.

LS is a graduate student in development studies at SOAS, London; before moving to London, she lived in China for two years, between 2010 and 2012, studying, travelling and working. This post is the second in a series on Chinese grassroots struggles to be published on the Peace News blog.

The first part of this series is available here.



News regarding the establishment of the petrochemical plant with following discussion published on a Kunming based news website (English).

News regarding the carbon credit sale in Yunnan (English)

Blog reporting the demonstrations taking place in Kunming (Mandarin)

Forum discussing the effects of PX on the environment (Mandarin)