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Chinese in Uproar Over Environmentally Harmful Construction

Benjamin Carlson
Wednesday, 12 Dec 2012 | 11:56 PM ET
Photographer | Collection | Getty Images

The rash of NIMBY protests across China this year has finally arrived in Beijing's own backyard.

On Sunday, roughly 300 protesters staged a march against plans to construct a high-speed rail line through their neighborhood in the eastern district of the capital. Carrying signs saying "my loved ones want a healthy environment," they stood outside the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning to demand a say in negotiations about the train's path.

Representatives of the protesters succeeded in winning a major concession today from the Ministry of Railways, GlobalPost has learned. Construction plans have been halted until an agreement is reached with residents affected by the train, according to a protester familiar with the negotiations.

Liu Jiajia, 30, attended the protest on Sunday, and spoke with GlobalPost by phone. Liu lives in one of the 34 residential communities that are adjacent to the planned rail line.

She says protesters are worried about noise pollution, radiation and high-voltage shocks from the trains, which will pass as close as 50 to 100 feet from their homes.

(Read More: Greyjing'? Air Pollution Fouls Beijing's Name)

"Once construction is complete, there will be about 172 trains per day, from 5 a.m. to 12 a.m. or even later," she said. "This was my first protest, because before I didn't think that issues were related to myself. This time I believe, it's my thing, so I have to stand up for myself."

Liu is part of a broad new middle-class in China that is speaking out more forcefully in defense of its property, health and legal rights. Like many in her neighborhood — not to mention the United States — Liu's family had to borrow heavily to buy a home, and the train threatens to radically undermine its value.

"Not just my family, but many families have a heavy burden for their house and their apartments, because the real estate prices are high. We borrowed a lot of money from the bank, and we finally got our apartment, we find out that there will be hundreds of trains outside our window. That's why people were going crazy."

Construction of high-speed trains in China was halted after the Wenzhou crash in July 2011 that killed 40 people, but since the economy has slowed, China's government is again deploying new rail projects to kick-start growth.

The planned 430-mile train line would link Shenyang, a northeastern city, with Beijing, at a cost of $20 billion. Construction was planned to begin as early as the end of this month. While it is unclear how much these plans can, or will, change, protesters can at least claim a minor initial victory: today, five representatives of affected communities got the Ministry of Railways to agree to halt construction plans until an agreement could be reached between residents and the government.

While a relatively small demonstration and concession, it is nevertheless noteworthy that they occurred at all: Although hundreds of demonstrations occur across China each day, as the seat of national political power, Beijing seldom tolerates even minor protests in the capital.

(Read More: Future Growth? The Answer Is Megacities)

But it wasn't for lack of trying. Liu says that last week, the police summoned the Beijing protest's organizer and told her to call it off. She complied, but the other residents decided to continue anyway.

Once it got started, the march quickly attracted supporters online. On Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, a user named Jindiao wrote, "Citizens's consciousness is waking up!" "Getting a rally approved, that's really progress," wrote another user named Daxiang Wuxing. "You just have to have self-confidence!"

(Read More: China: From Environmental Degradation to an Eco-City)

The Beijing train protests come at the end of a remarkable middle-class backlash against environmentally harmful projects in 2012. In late October, citizens of Ningbo, a wealthy coastal city, marched for several days against the $8.9 billion expansion of a petrochemical plant. They succeeded in tabling the plans. In July, blueprints for a $1.8 billion copper smelting plant in Sichuan province were scrapped after rioters clashed violently with police. In July in Jiangsu province, tens of thousands of people turned out to oppose expansion of a paper mill.

In general, environment protests in China tend to be more tolerated than overtly political protests. But the number of incidents, and their increased violence, have forced Chinese officials to take notice.

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In November, the government announced new rules requiring all major industrial projects to do a public impact study first. At the press conference announcing the measure, the environment minister acknowledged the growth in unrest.

"No major projects can be launched without social risk evaluations," the minister said. "By doing so, I hope we can reduce the number of mass incidents in the future." He also reiterated a rule introduced in September that requires officials to post environmental assessments of projects online.

While the policies may change, the increasing demands and expectations of China's growing middle-class will not. Asked why China is seeing more protests from people like her, Liu cited "a growing civic awareness," and the Internet, which allows Chinese people to share information outside of the censored-media bubble.

"People know more and more about the truth, and that's why they have to stand up."