Local leaders were all smiles this summer at a groundbreaking ceremony for a vast copper smelting project that seemed like the answer to the chronic unemployment that has plagued this city in northern Sichuan ever since a devastating earthquake in 2008.
But within days, the tree-lined plaza at the heart of the city was packed with thousands of youths, protesting that the $1.6-billion factory would pose a pollution hazard. After two nights of street battles pitting youths against the riot police, city leaders cancelled the smelter.
“The environment is more important” than new investments or jobs, said a young woman sitting, on a recent afternoon, at the cafe across the street from the plaza, now empty except for a clutch of retirees gathered under the clock tower.
China’s economic boom over the last three decades has depended overwhelmingly on a build-at-all-costs investment strategy in which pollution concerns, the preservation of neighbourhoods and other such questions have been swept aside. But that approach is starting to backfire, posing one of the biggest challenges for the new generation of Chinese policymakers who will take over at the Communist Party Congress, which started on Thursday.
New investment projects used to be seen as the best way to keep the Chinese public happy with jobs and rising incomes, assuring social stability — a paramount goal of the Communist Party — while frequently enriching local politicians as well.
But from Shifang in the west to the port of Ningbo in the east, where a week of sometimes violent protests forced the suspension on October 28 of plans to expand a chemical plant, more projects are running into public hostility. In many cases, they are running into opposition not just from farmers who do not want their houses and fields confiscated, but also from a growing middle class fearful that new factories will lead to more environmental damage.
In response to this and other worries about the economy, a number of influential officials and business leaders in China have stepped up their calls for changes aimed at increasing the efficiency of investment and simultaneously shifting the country toward a greater reliance on consumption.
But China’s leaders, including outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, have been talking about such a transformation for years with little sign of success, as state-controlled banks continue to lend huge sums to politically powerful state-owned enterprises and local governments.
Frenzied construction of roads, bridges, tunnels and rail lines over the last