Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

China Adds Risk of Unrest to Project Criteria ; Assessment Required for All Big Undertakings, Environmental Chief Says

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

China Adds Risk of Unrest to Project Criteria ; Assessment Required for All Big Undertakings, Environmental Chief Says

Article excerpt

China has ordered that all big industrial projects must pass a "social risk assessment" before they can start, the country's environment minister said Monday.

Faced with a series of large and increasingly violent environmental protests against big industrial projects, China has ordered that all further big projects must pass a "social risk assessment" before they can start, the country's environment minister said Monday.

The decision comes after thousands of protesters have taken to the streets over the past year in at least eight cities, forcing the suspension or cancellation of chemical plants, coal-fired power plants and a giant copper smelter.

The initial protests a year ago drew mostly middle-aged and older demonstrators who had little to lose if the police put disparaging remarks about them into the personnel files that the government maintains on every citizen. But demonstrations over the past several months have involved angry youths who gathered from several towns and used social media to coordinate their activities during clashes with security forces -- new trends that are certain to have dismayed the country's political leadership.

"No major projects can be launched without social risk evaluations," the environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, said at a news conference held in conjunction with the 18th Party Congress, which began last Thursday. "By doing so, I hope we can reduce the number of mass incidents in the future."

The national government said previously 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.

But Mr. Zhou is the first to say that the cabinet, 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 said mass protests tended to happen because of one or more of the four 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 in advance of community sentiment, and may occur in places with weak local governments, he said.

Mr. Zhou did not provide a description of how social risk assessments would be conducted but 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 to protesters, only changing tack once when he used a derogatory term for those who object only to the proximity of a project and not its environmental fundamentals.

"We are beginning to see a 'Not in my back yard' 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. …

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