Recent WSJ further Highlights Change of Environmental Mindset

Thursday, December 20, 2007 14:07
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Following, and providing support, of my observations in a Summer 2007: A Catalyst for Environment Change in China and The Real Meaning of Public Hearings in Xiamen, the WSJ has put forward an article RISING TIDE: Dissent Slows China’s Drive For Massive Dam Projects (subscription Req’d).

Simply put, Andrew Batson writes about the role that public opinion is playing to slow down the pace of Dam investment and building along China’s various waterways.

Three Gorges recently gained the focus of media as there have been a number of reports of increased local water pollution and land slides. Initially denied by local officials, SEPA and other organizations have been more forthcoming and have accepted that there are things occuring that were not to plan.

Where this article provides further proof in my mind that we have taken a step, a healthy step, in China’s development comes from the former head of the three gorges project:

“Times have changed. Engineers need to raise their awareness of environmental protection,” says Lu Youmei, the former head of the embattled Three Gorges dam project and now chairman of the Chinese National Committee on Large Dams, a major dam-engineering organization.

the article then goes on to describe a number of incidents where dam projects were opposed (many failed), but that a foundation had been laid for the future:

While opponents of the Baitiao River project doubt they will succeed in killing it, they hope they can establish precedents for how China’s government should relate to its people.

“The question isn’t whether a single project should go forward or not. The question is whether there is a transparent process to decide things that affect the public interest,” Tan Zuoren, a writer active in the opposition to the Baitiao project, says at one of Chengdu’s tea houses, where intellectuals often gather. “We are training the government. Ordinary people have a right to say no.”

While some may not see this as progress, I am encouraged by reports like these. There are steps being taken, and where once the dialog was very confrontational and resident concerns were often sidestepped, there are now people listening and mechanisms being put in place to allow for healthy debate.

Now, why is all this important to those in the foreign business community? Whyshould anyone care that china is taking these steps?

Well, there are two reasons that present themselves without much difficulty:

1) china is maturing, and the government through this process is showing that it will consider local oppostion to environmentally unsafe investments beforehand

2) Unlike 5 years ago, the State seal of approval is not the end all and be all. As the recent Xiamen discussions showed, investments can come under public review at any time. Even if the project is under construction

Peel the onion back a little more, and what you will find is that:

1) environmental NGOs, who have already been empowered and credited by SEPA, will begin playing a larger role and unlike in the old days, their relationships with various officials will improve

2) this is only the beginning. foreign firms, and domestic, that were once above the law are now in a position where their previous gray area efforts may be exposed in many areas.

Through this, I guess my conclusion is this. There are firms (a significant minority) who used to operate in the gray areas, get environmental consderations, etc, and they are now in a position where those “negotiations” may be “renegotiated”. Whereas local officials may have given a pass before, now that pass is at risk of being provoked.

Having spent the last few days speaking to experts in the Bay Area on regulation and sustainable development, my personal belief is that china’s attitude and approach to many problems are changing, and it is exciting to see. It may mean that the business community will have to accept some hardship, but over the medium to longterm, that hardship will be seen not as an expense, but as an investment that provides returns.

Think I am crazy? Encouraged? Have a Story? Share your comments!

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