On June 28, residents of the Yangluo residential district in the central Chinese city of Wuhan took to the streets to protest the construction of a waste-to-energy plant in the district. The protests, which occurred outside the city government’s offices, were met with a large contingent of regular and riot police, according to pictures and comments circulated on Weibo, and the violent response of the police was widely condemned by netizens.
Wuhan, like many cities in China, faces a waste disposal problem, as growing urbanization leads to dense population centers with little room for refuse. Wuhan’s city message board contains several complaints about smells emanating from the landfill currently located in Yangluo, as well as concerns about the construction of the new landfills. Waste management problems have sometimes been fatal: in 2015, at least 69 people were killed by the collapse of a mountain of construction debris and waste in Shenzhen.
Waste-to-energy conversion plants purport to provide an answer to these concerns. The plants, which burn trash to produce electricity, have been celebrated as a source of renewable energy. In Sweden, which incinerates 50 percent of its waste, less than 1 percent of waste ends in up in landfills, reducing methane emissions. However, while the plants provide a solution to waste management, they can come with a significant cost in terms of emissions. The Wheelabrator plant near New York City releases 577 millions pounds of carbon dioxide annually, in addition to significant quantities of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide.
The Chenjiachong waste-to-energy plant, built at the site of an existing landfill, will cost 199 million yuan (roughly $29 million) and, according to city planning documents, will process 2,000 tons of waste per day. The plant will be the sixth waste-to-energy plant in the city, and is part of a larger project to create a “circular economy” industrial park in the zone. A 2015 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that past waste incineration projects were plagued by several problems, including the “illegal construction of waste incineration plants close residential areas,” manipulation of the assessment process, limited public participation, and failure of the Wuhan Municipal government to properly enforce disposal standards. One waste incineration plant currently operating in Wuhan, Guodingshan is located just 100 meters from apartment buildings. According to the authors, none of the plants would pass an environmental impact assessment.
Previous action to stop the construction of waste-to-energy plants has been largely unsuccessful. In 2017, Shenzhen residents sued over the construction of a waste-to-energy plant. Although the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s court ruled for the release of the environmental impact assessment and other planning documents, construction began when the Shenzhen government appealed the decision. In Xiaotou, a small city about 100 km from Wuhan, construction of a waste-to-energy plant was halted in 2016 after residents took to the streets in protest, but construction on the site resumed again in 2018, with the first phase completed in January of this year.
Residents have good reason to be concerned about the construction of the Chenjiachong plant in particular. Those concerns are delineated in a letter allegedly written by representatives of the Yangluo community and posted on the “Wuhan Top Headlines” Weibo account (the post was blocked or deleted after June 28, but reposted on July 1). Concerns include the capability of the company itself and the placement of the plant, which is located just 800 meters from some residences, rather than the minimum 1.5 km recommended by publicly available plans for the area.
The letter notes that the company given the contract for the project, Wuhan Huaneng Rongcheng Renewable Resources Co., Ltd. (a state-owned enterprise), was only created on April 17, 2019, just two days before Yangtze New City, the group operating a larger circular economy, filed the project. City records show that name approval for Wuhan Huaneng Rongcheng was granted on April 11, 2019. The selection of such a new company for the project is particularly strange given that there are well-established companies (CCEPC and Kaidi) in Wuhan already operating waste-to-energy plants. Construction of the plant, which appears to have prompted Thursday’s protests, began two months earlier than indicated by the project plan, prompting fears that the company and the government sought to achieve a fait accompli.
Videos and comments circulating on Weibo show hundreds of riot police and suggest that police beat protesters (including the elderly). Echoing climate change protests worldwide, young people played a central role in the protest. Several widely shared photos and videos from the protest show a young boy encouraging the protesters over a megaphone. By Sunday, the topic had been viewed by over 231 million Weibo users, at which point it was removed from “hot searches” on Weibo. The topic is not entirely blocked, but users report blocking of individual posts. A post by the district government states that given public opposition, the project will not start. However, criticism over police brutality in response to the protests has continued and posts on Weibo suggest that protests lasted for a third day.
Media and legal experts interviewed by a local media company echoed many of the protesters’ concerns, noting that the protests stemmed from a lack of transparency and community consultation. While commentators generally suggested that the project was necessary, they highlighted the need for better education of the people and greater public communication. Ding Gaobo, a former CCTV reporter, said that if the government can’t prove their ability to supervise pollution by actions and in fact, it will be difficult to persuade the people to agree with the plant, because there is no guarantee that pollution will not hurt future generations.
Netizens generally expressed their support for the protesters, noting that the government had been unresponsive to the concerns of the local people and that the government used excessive use of force in response to the protesters. Both netizens and Yangluo residents emphasized that their requests were modest: they were not objecting to the construction of the plant, they just wanted it moved farther away from their homes. While some held out hope for a satisfactory answer from the government, the government’s lack of commitment to serving the people was also frequently condemned. One comment on Weibo reads, “These people are not terrorists, they are just people who are just trying to keep their country from stinking, trying to preserve the health of the next generation living on this land, trying to defend their own rights and interests. Trying to give a statement to the government, the government suppressed them with arms.”
Kendra Brock holds an MA in International Relations and Diplomacy from Seton Hall University. She taught at Wuhan Polytechnic University in Wuhan, China for three years.