Public consultation key to avoiding protests

By Wang Wenwen Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-15 0:33:01

Authorities in Jiangmen, Guangdong Province, on Saturday canceled plans to build a nuclear fuel processing plant, one day after over 1,000 people took to the streets to oppose the project over environmental and livelihood concerns. The Jiangmen government then on Sunday issued a statement promising to scrap the project, apparently in response to public fears that the project might still go ahead.

The swift response was hailed by many online as a victory for public opinion over government decisions. Over the past two years, embracing a much freer public opinion sphere empowered by social media tools such as Weibo, Chinese citizens have become more and more vocal about their rights.

Environmental concerns have emerged as a focus of public dissent. Land grabs and failures to pay fair or any compensation are among the root causes of public dissatisfaction in China's rural areas.

As a result, street protests have become a more common means to protest against government decisions and call for justice. The "victory" of the Jiangmen public was one example. However, some observers also worry that the government has acted too rashly and given way too easily to public protests.

Indeed, while we hope for a responsible government, a model whereby the government quickly bows to public demands when facing mass demonstrations should never run wild.

For a long period of time, Chinese society will find it difficult to manage civilized protests. In China, where democracy and the rule of law haven't developed to their full extent, there will be many individuals and groups that resort to protests to boost their own interests.

Meanwhile, the confrontations between the public and the government will surely consume significant societal resources even if they go the government's way. The government, if it acts fast and loose, will soon lose its credibility.

Nonetheless, an opaque and unreasonable decision-making process is the reason why the government was in a position where it had to yield. Mass protests against pollution in Qidong and Shifang last year that managed to force local governments to cancel large offending projects have already proved this.

All levels of government should reflect on these recent conflicts and consider how to establish a system that fosters consultations between officials and the public.

The protest in Jiangmen seems like a victory for public opinion. However, the channel through which the government and the public can communicate rationally has been broken off.

Finding a way to achieve a consensus between people's awareness of their rights and large energy projects, and how to strike a balance between government credibility and the public's freedom of expression are questions that remain after this incident.

Posted in: Observer

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