China’s ‘nimby’ movement inspires spirit of protest

Rising localism is encouraging Chinese people to ask if too high a price is being paid for economic growth

The word “NIMBY” (“Not In My Backyard”, translated into Chinese as linbi – or, “avoid the neighbourhood”) started to appear in the Chinese media after the 2007 protests against a PX chemical plant in Xiamen, describing what was a new phenomenon for China, but old news in the West. In the following years the word remained neutral, up until 2014, when China saw new protests against waste incinerators in Maoming in Guangdong, and Yuhang in Zhejiang. At this point, the official media started to hint that Nimbyism was selfish, irresponsible, and perhaps even criminal.

Now the word has been smeared, we need to look again at why Nimbyism appeared in China, and what it has meant for the country.

China’s environmental scandals are associated with a lack of government transparency, absent environmental safeguards and inadequate compensation mechanisms. On top of all this there is a deep-rooted public mistrust of government, which cannot be expressed through political or legal process. Nimby protests provide an alternative route for the people to express their common and pressing concerns.

Under Chinese law, an environmental impact assessment must be produced for any planned project which may affect the environment, and public opinion must be solicited. Informed public consent is a condition for the project to progress. But in reality such projects rarely make the necessary information public in good time. In some cases – such as the Kunming PX plant in 2013 – the assessment is not made public even after construction has started, as it is classed as a “state secret”.

Plans are made for many projects with major potential impacts on the environment without any public involvement. In March 2014, the city of Hangzhou published development plans including a power-generating waste incinerator in the district of Yuhang. In April, the plans for the plant, set to be the largest of its type in Asia, were made public. But the government’s heavy-handed approach sparked protests which ran from the evening of May 7 to dawn on May 11.

It is also impossible to sue over environmental accidents. After a joint venture run by ConocoPhillips and China National Offshore Oil Corporation leaked oil into the Bohai Gulf in 2011, affected fishermen attempted to claim damages. But only one case was accepted by the courts, and two years later it had still not been heard. The revision of the Environmental Protection Law sets very high thresholds for bringing environmental lawsuits, and even prohibits individuals from doing so outright. It is surely rare anywhere in the world for such harsh restrictions to be included in a law intended to protect the environment.

Nimbyism is forcing government and developers back to the negotiating table. Due to protests, PX projects in Xiamen, Dalian, Ningbo and Kunming, plus the incinerators in Panyu and Yuhang, were either temporarily halted or closed for improvements. The Dalian government even undertook to move China’s biggest PX plant, Dalian Fujia Petrochemicals, from its original location.

In China, the Nimby movement has deliberately avoided organising. This means it cannot negotiate with government and lacks longevity. Local governments typically try to play the protests down, making their impact uncertain. And in fact, although the Xiamen PX plant was moved to the Gulei peninsula, the other projects were all restarted after a time.

Most importantly, the Nimby movement has raised environmental awareness and forced the Chinese people to ask if the price being paid for economic growth is too high. It has also inspired localism and a spirit of protest. Rising localism may result in a reallocation of interests, as local governments and investors are forced to compensate for environmental losses. And those protesting will learn more effective approaches – to talk, and to reach fair compromises.