The molybdenum copper plant project in Shifang, Sichuan Province has been suspended after local protests erupted and police officers arrived to disperse the crowds. The local government's public credibility was harmed, and most importantly, this is not the first case that Chinese local authorities should take as a grave warning.
Objectively, the escalation of the scenario in Shifang doesn't mean the project itself was completely wrong. The project indeed brought huge investment and job opportunities. If the environmental assessment had been reliable and trusted by local residents, the project might have been a chance for growth in this city which was hit by the massive 2008 earthquake.
However, serious loopholes existed in the decision-making process, and the whole project was carried out very hastily, sparking protests.
The plant was a significant industrial project listed in Sichuan Province's 12th Five-Year Plan, which was approved by central authorities.
As a country with a massive population, a shortage of resources and low-level development, China doesn't have the luxury to only undertake projects that carry no environmental risks like Japan and Europe, which now focus on high-end economy and transfer industries with environmental risks to other countries.
China does need petrochemical plants and molybdenum copper projects. As a densely populated country with many underdeveloped areas, China has to bear the cost of undertaking tiring and environmentally risky industries that many developed countries won't go near.
It is in such circumstances that local governments should earnestly deal with every single industrial project that carries environmental concerns. They should tell the truth to the public, rather than harbor the illusion that public opinion can be controlled when it comes to environmental issues.
Projects like the plant in Shifang can bring jobs and revenues, and they are not unattractive at all to a rational public. It is very normal that the project leads to some environmental worries and even opposition. Facing up to this can prompt local authorities to raise environmental protection standards. From a macro perspective, Chinese society will ultimately accept these projects while coming up with methods to stem their risks.
These projects will only increase throughout the nation, so as to satisfy people's increasing material demand.
Only erroneous site selections, unqualified environmental protection indexes, and insufficient communication between officials and the public can set these projects in confrontation with public interests. This is exactly why we say what happened in Shifang should never be repeated.
This indeed tests local governments' governance ability. China is changing, and the Internet is scrutinizing every single corner of society. Local officials should not overestimate their power and resist public supervision. The only thing they can rely on is law-based governance.