While the rest of the world watches in awe at the sight of millions of Hong Kongers protesting against an extradition bill and demanding greater political freedom, a different protest erupted in Wuhan, in the heartland of mainland China.
Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province, is the seventh-largest city in China, with 10 million residents. Sitting on the bank of Yangtze River, it has long served as an important harbor, a commercial and industrial center in central China. Wuhan is known for its hot weather, hot food, and hot-tempered (but talented) people.
It’s the hometown of tennis star Li Na, who won the 2011 French Open, and Fu Mingxia, who probably is still the most decorated diver in Olympic history. Since I spent part of my youth there, I call it my hometown too.
Starting on June 28, thousands of people in Yangluo, a suburb of Wuhan—and only 18 miles from downtown and a designated economic and technology development zone—have been protesting a proposed waste incineration plant in their neighborhood. They have every reason to be angry. Their city used to be a beautiful place with hundreds of picturesque lakes. Relaxed seniors could often be seen practicing Taiji near waving willow trees at the lakeside.
Now, most lakes are gone, replaced by factories, high-rise apartment buildings, and landfills for garbage. People have lived with smog and terrible smells for years. Seniors can’t do their morning exercises, and parents won’t let their children play outside. People complain that they can smell the terrible smell from the landfill several miles away. Residents keep their windows shut all year round, in a futile effort to keep the disgusting smell out.
The Waste Incineration Controversy
After years of complaints, the local government finally promised the people of Yangluo that it would build a park. But in June, people learned the government was going to build a waste incineration plant, which would turn 2,000 tons of trash each day into energy by burning it on the very site of the promised park. The city insists such a plant is necessary to promote renewable energy and help tackle the city’s worsening trash disposal situation due to fast urbanization and shrinking available land for building additional landfills.
The residents told foreign journalists they wanted to support the government’s green initiative, but the proposed plant would be less than half a mile away from a dense residential area, which violates even the government’s own minimum recommended distance of at least one mile from any residential area.
Having a waste plant so close to their homes isn’t residents’ only concern. They are also concerned about emissions. Waste plants such as this are known to produce substantial amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide. According to reports, such emissions “are not only dangerous in China but can also float on air currents across the Pacific, reaching as far as the United States.”
The technology that helps reduce such toxic emission is available, but it is expensive. Chinese companies are known to cut corners to save money. Residents don’t have to search too hard to validate their concerns.
China’s Government Won’t Follow Their Own Rules
The city already has five similar waste incineration plants. One is only about 300 feet from a residential area. All of these five incineration plants are reportedly beleaguered with problems, including “illegal construction of waste incineration plants close to residential areas, manipulation of the assessment process, limited public participation, and failure of the Wuhan Municipal government to properly enforce disposal standards.” In other words, had the government’s own environmental standards been strictly followed, none of these plants would have been built.
In an open letter, residents of Yangluo raised many other concerns, including the trustworthiness of the plant’s construction company. Paperwork shows the company, a state-owned enterprise, was formed on April 17, 2019. People are asking why the government chose to award such a high-impact project to a brand new company that has no track record in building waste incarnation plants.
Rather than addressing the people’s concern, some government officials tried to quiet them by stating that once the waste plant is built, the air pollution and the bad smells will go away. They also insisted the building plan was still under consideration even though residents have heard construction noise. People are fed up with the government’s lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and lies.
On June 28, concerned Yangluo residents took to the streets to protest the government’s plan. They carried banners such as “Return us the green mountain and clear waters”; “We want fresh air, not toxic air”; and a direct plea to Chinese President Xi Jinping: “Xi Da Da (Father Xi), Please save Yangluo. Air pollution will ruin our children.”
Government officials were caught off-guard by this demonstration because public protest carries significant personal risks in China. Chinese people are well trained from a young age that going up against the government is like “hitting a rock with an egg”: it never ends well and will only cause self-harm. Therefore, they rarely take to the streets unless they have no other viable options.
That’s exactly what happened in Yangluo. The local government, on one hand, told residents to stay home and that everything they heard about the waste plant was a rumor. On the other hand, it sent thousands of police in riot gear to confront peaceful protestors.
Videos such as this one and this one recorded police brutality, including beating peaceful protestors. You can hear in the background someone shout in Chinese, “Police are beating people!” A few dozen protestors were arrested. Still, protestors are undeterred. They have been protesting for seven days by the end of last week, and some carried a new banner that says, “Don’t beat us. We only want to breathe fresh air.”
Of course, Chinese censors quickly scrubbed the internet of any images and references to the Yangluo and Wuhan protests. The local government also reportedly disabled internet service to prevent residents from using social media to coordinate their protests.
Are the Hong Kong Protests Spreading to the Mainland?
Since the Yangluo protest has taken place at the same time Hong Kongers are protesting over the extradition bill, outsiders may think the Hong Kong protests have inspired Yangluo residents. But Chinese state-run media and internet companies haven’t covered what’s going on in Hong Kong.
Even for those mainland Chinese who know about the Hong Kong protest, there is little sympathy for Hong Kongers because since 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, most Chinese agreed to this unwritten social contract with their government: people will accept limited political freedom in exchange for economic prosperity. Therefore, many mainlanders consider Hong Kongers spoiled children because they already enjoy political freedom beyond the reach of most mainlanders.
This is why the protest in Yangluo over environmental issues present a bigger problem to the Chinese government, especially Xi. While the majority of mainlanders have little sympathy for Hong Kongers, they have shown sympathy to Yangluo protestors because what people in Yangluo are fighting for—fresh air and less pollution—is something every mainlander can relate to.
China has achieved its impressive economic growth in the last three decades at the expense of its environment and public health. It’s the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Smog is common in many Chinese cities, including Beijing, the capital city. In December 2015, Beijing had to issue red alerts due to severe air pollution. According to the Council on Foreign Relation’s report on China’s environmental crisis:
In 2014, groundwater supplies in more than 60 percent of major cities were categorized as ‘bad to very bad,’ and more than a quarter of China’s key rivers are ‘unfit for human contact‘… And about 1.05 million square miles of China’s landmass are undergoing desertification, affecting more than 400 million people.
While most Chinese people have demonstrated great tolerance for the government’s internet censorship and massive surveillance, no one is willing to drink contaminated water or breathe toxic air for very long. Environmental issues have become the top cause for public protests in China. Environment issues are also the top reason why Chinese with means are immigrating to other countries in droves. When they move, they take their talents and capital with them. Even the Chinese government realizes that environmental issues are threatening the Communist Party’s legitimacy.
In 2015, a documentary about air pollution in China, titled “Under the Dome,” received 100 million views by Chinese netizens within 48 hours. In the film, a 6-year-old girl told the interviewer she doesn’t know what a white cloud looks like. The film director raised the question of China’s development model and was forced to cut that part out for fear of it not passing the censor. Government censors then quickly shut the film down after its popularity proved it touched a nerve of the country.
In their open letter, people in Yangluo concluded with this: “As ordinary citizens, we don’t demand much. We just hope to live in an environment that is healthy and safe. We don’t want to harm the interests of anyone else…As Chinese citizens and residents of Yangluo, we believe our government knows what’s the right thing to do.”
I don’t know if they were being sarcastic or hoping that showing good faith in government would help their cause. No matter their intent, if the Chinese government fails to listen to its people, it will have a big problem on its hands.