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‘Social Risk’ Test Ordered By China for Big Projects

Keith Bradsher | The New York Times
Monday, 12 Nov 2012 | 9:22 PM ET

The cabinet of China has ordered that all major industrial projects must pass a "social risk assessment" before they begin, a move aimed at curtailing the large and increasingly violent environmental protests of the last year, which forced the suspension or cancellation of chemical plants, coal-fired power plants and a giant copper smelter.

Peter Parks | AFP | Getty Images

The announcement came at a news conference on Monday held in conjunction with the 18th Party Congress, at which several senior officials addressed social issues ahead of the once-in-a decade transition of power in the Chinese leadership.

"No major projects can be launched without social risk evaluations," Zhou Shengxian, the environment minister, said at the news conference. "By doing so, I hope we can reduce the number of mass incidents in the future."

When the protests began, they drew mostly middle-age and older Chinese who had little to lose if the police put disparaging remarks about them into the files that the government maintains on every citizen. But over the past several months, angry youths have gathered from several towns and have used social media to coordinate their activities during clashes with security forces — trends that are certain to have dismayed the country's political leadership.

The national government had previously said on several occasions that it was studying ways to conduct social risk evaluations, and the current Five-Year Plan through 2015 calls for a mechanism to be created to make such assessments. Some local and provincial governments already have procedures for assessing whether a community will reject a planned project, separate from environmental risk assessments.

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But Mr. Zhou is the first to say that the cabinet, known as the State Council, has actually ordered that no more major projects be started without a social risk assessment, said Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, one of the best-known environmental groups in Beijing.

Mr. Zhou also noted that effective Sept. 1, all government agencies in China had been ordered to make public all environmental impact assessments by posting them on the Internet, with a description of what the government planned to do about the assessments. The decision was announced at the time, but received limited attention.

Mr. Zhou said that mass protests tended to happen because of one or more of the mistakes that the government now intends to remedy. These mistakes involve projects that start without official approval, without proper environmental impact assessments and without an assessment of community sentiment, he said, and weak local governments may also be a factor.

He did not provide a description of how social risk assessments would be conducted, but he indicated that they would involve looking at the likelihood that a project would set off a public backlash.

Societies inevitably become more aware of environmental issues as they develop, and this is happening in China, Mr. Zhou said. He took a fairly sympathetic tone toward the protesters, changing tack only once, when he used a derogatory term for those who object only to the proximity of a project and not to its environmental fundamentals.

"We are beginning to see a 'not in my backyard' phenomenon," he said.

Each new protest in recent months has set off frenzied national discussions on Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging site, soaring repeatedly to the top of the list of most-searched subjects.

China has led the world in economic growth for the past three decades, but it has paid a heavy environmental price. Acrid smog coats most large Chinese cities for much of the year, while many lakes and rivers are contaminated with heavy metals and toxic chemicals.

Thousands of young protesters fought with the riot police for two nights in early July in Shifang, in western China, prompting the local government to announce the cancellation of a giant copper smelter that was seen by the demonstrators as a pollution threat. The government also issued a public warning on the Internet that any further protests would be met with force.

But the next night, the largest crowd yet gathered to demand the release of dozens of protesters detained during the two previous nights, and the local government backed down and released them.

Many environmental officials in China want the introduction of social risk assessments because protests against industrial projects often involve broader issues than just the environment and may extend to questions like whether the land for the project was lawfully obtained with proper compensation for its previous owners, Mr. Ma said.

Powerful vested interests often have stakes in projects, and they have far more influence than local environmental officials. But when projects set off rioting, environmental regulators tend to be blamed for having allowed construction to begin.

"The environmental agencies feel they have been put under too much pressure, beyond the authority they've got," Mr. Ma said.

At the news conference on Monday, other senior officials also described problems with surprising candor, although always careful to say how they planned to address the problems.

Zhu Zhixin, a vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, said that many citizens found it hard to afford medical care at big hospitals in large cities, despite rapid moves in the past decade to introduce at least some health insurance for 95 percent of the population. The government is trying to expand the availability of clinics and other medical institutions in smaller cities and towns, he said.

Jiang Weixin, the minister of housing and urban and rural development, said the government was not ready to relax its strict real estate regulations, which are aimed at discouraging speculation to improve housing affordability. Developers have been complaining that the rules, including limits on the purchase of second and subsequent apartments, have depressed demand and hurt the construction industry.