The Chinese government was forced to abandon plans for a uranium processing plant after an outpouring of protests. While China is often slammed for its tough crack downs on protests, there is evidence that a more powerful and robust civil society is emerging and that the government is now facing the realities of tolerating and working with it. Surprisingly, it took only 1,000 protesters to shut the project down.
Protests emerged over the planned development of a 229 hectare industrial park, with the centerpiece of the park being a uranium enrichment plant. The plans were developed by the China Nuclear Power Corp. and China Guadong Nuclear Power Group. The plant would have represented a 6 billion dollar investment and would have supplied 1,000 tons of enriched uranium per year.
Protests in China Still Growing
The quick speed, size of investment, and small number of protesters all combine to make a rather shocking turn of events. Clearly China has come a long way since brutally suppressing the Tienanmen Square protests in 1989. Still, the Chinese government has demonstrated a willingness to draw protesters’ ire when the situation warrants it. Nuclear power is a major cornerstone of China’s development plans and drive to reduce dependence on foreign energy. Some analysts were surprised that the government shelved the project in the face of such a small protest.
The number of protests in China has been growing in recent years. In fact, there are as many as 180,000 protests per year. While the government does shut down some of these protests and occasionally arrests people, officials are also proving to be more tolerant than in the past. Chinese officials may be waking up to a somber reality in which they can no longer crack down on every dissenter and retain a tight grip over society.
These moves offer strong evidence that the new Chinese government, under the lead of Xi Jinping, is serious about its ‘people first’ platform. The Chinese government has traditionally relied on strong economic growth to placate its massive population, however, an emerging middle class is now demanding more. Massive wealth inequity, corruption, and environmental pollution are now fueling an increasingly muscular civil society.
What does this mean for China? As the middle class continues to grow, the Communist government will either have to meet the demands of its citizens or risk increasingly forceful protests. Outside of Tibet, China has seen nothing in comparable to the protests that have rattled Western powers in Europe and North America, or anything near the scale of the so-called Arab Spring. Still, the Chinese middle class will most likely continue to grow more forceful in their demands for reform.
Economic Growth No Longer Placating Societal Demands
Part of this relies on economics. As the saying goes, “it’s the economy, stupid,” and China has enjoyed strong growth over the last 20 years. Generally, countries do not face strong civil society backlash, so long as the economy is growing and material well-being continues to improve. Now, however, the middle class has developed to such an extent that economic growth may no longer be enough to placate demands.
Still, as Western markets dry up and China transitions from an export led economy, to a consumer consumption oriented one, there are risks that growth will slow. This will be especially true during any transitional stage. With rising costs and strengthening environmental regulations, China no longer has as clear of advantages over its neighbors. Increasingly, multinational firms are looking to Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and elsewhere to set up labor intensive industries.
This will result in declining opportunities for the rural poor from China’s hinterlands, who still number in the hundreds of millions. As such, the Chinese government could also face increasing backlash from poorer citizens demanding more opportunities. The combination of working and middle class demands could prove to be a potent force in pushing through change in the Middle Kingdom.
Chinese Government Coping With Modern Pressures
The Chinese government seems to be recognizing these potential threats by learning to cope with and respond to their citizen’s demands. The Chinese government has begun to slowly loosen censorship, especially with regards to the internet, and is increasing investments in social safety nets, such as health care. The government is also working to lower housing costs and to increase opportunities for middle class citizens.
The Chinese government seems to have recognized that in a modern age fueled by an increasingly well-educated population with access to social media and electronic communication, a heavy-handed grip on society may no longer be possible. Instead, the Chinese government will have to become increasingly responsive to their citizen’s demands, or be prepared to face backlash. Still, as long as China’s economy continues to grow and people’s well being continues to rise, the government should face no major challenges in the short term.