Nanhui case points country in right direction
Published: Mar 06, 2014 05:18 PM

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

Shanghai ranked prominently on two major lists this past week. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit's biannual global cost of living survey, Shanghai ranked No.21 on a list of 131 cities; beating notoriously pricey New York, which took the No.26 slot. Meanwhile, another survey found that the average minimum salary needed to feel financially secure in the city was 9,250 yuan ($1,513), more than any other city on Chinese mainland by a margin of several hundred to thousand yuan.

These days, it's not uncommon to find our fair city near the top of lists for one thing or another. But its distinctions cut both ways for local residents. Many see Shanghai as a place where dreams are realized and fortunes are made. But despite its promise of opportunity, daily life in the city is a matter of survival for countless individuals. This, of course, is a topic that continues to excite much debate and discussion.

Today though, I'd like to talk about something other than economic development. For now, my aim is to discuss the growing sense of environmental awareness taking root within the general public and authorities at all levels.

Many local residents heaved a sigh of relief Tuesday night after learning that plans to build a lithium ion battery factory in the Shanghai Nanhui Industrial Park, in Pudong New Area, had been scrapped. According to announcements posted on the park's official website, public opposition was the main factor behind the project's cancellation.

The proposed battery plant was a sensitive subject right from the start due to concerns about the potential contamination of nearby soil and water. For many in Pudong, these concerns were no doubt particularly troubling in light of the area's past experience with battery pollution.

In September 2011, dozens of children in Pudong's Kangqiao area were found with excessive levels of lead in their bloodstreams. Later, a local battery maker was reportedly held responsible for the incident.

But with regard to recent events in Nanhui, signs of progress are starting to emerge.

Based on the actions of district officials, we can see that related departments are doing their jobs in an open, transparent manner. We can see that an environmental evaluation was conducted by the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences prior to the project's initial approval. The results of this evaluation were later put online, along with calls for the public to weigh in on the planned project.

In this case, the public's reaction was overwhelmingly negative. A district-level conference was subsequently held to rethink the project and eventually a decision was made to pull the plug altogether in light of the public's rejection.

Here we find a model that is clearly worth promoting. Authorities stuck to the law, without tricking the public or cutting corners. After being made aware of the facts related to the project, members of the public were able to make their opinions known and their voices were taken into respectful consideration by authorities.

Sources in Nanhui told me that they expressed their sentiments through various channels: they called the hot line of the industrial park; they created slogans and banners to show opposition to the project; they reasoned with officials to call a halt.

Although the project could have created new job opportunities and boosted the local economy, there is now a growing belief that no economic benefits are worth sacrificing the environment or public health.

I'm thrilled to see that a consensus was reached between local residents and authorities. This case should not be seen as a battle with winners and losers, but a stride toward progress for everyone.

Until recently the public was typically unconcerned about what was happening around them when it came to the environment. The government attracted investment and approved projects: this was simply how the world worked in the minds of many Chinese people. Those concerned with such matters focused much of their attention on tax revenues, employment rates and GDP growth.

But with time, we noticed that the sky was becoming grayer and the water was becoming dirtier. Smog became not just a problem for a few big cities, but a problem for the entire country. It's now time to take action.

Friends say that polluting industrial projects just move from one place to another when they encounter resistance. I can't deny that history contains instances of this phenomenon. It's not easy to throw away the revenue such projects can bring to a local economy. But no one claims it will be easy to strike a balance between economic development and environmental protection.

When Premier Li Keqiang delivered his first annual government work report during the National People's Congress on Wednesday, Li mentioned the country's 7.5 percent economic growth target along with ecological issues facing China.

I think there is good reason to expect a comprehensive campaign, from the top to the grass-roots level, to tackle pollution.

The Pudong case provides a good example for other administrators. We remain confident that more such examples will be seen in the near future.

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.