Governing environmental conflicts in China: Lessons learned from the case of the Liulitun waste incineration power plant in Beijing

Date01 April 2019
AuthorYanwei Li
Published date01 April 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Governing environmental
conflicts in China:
Lessons learned from
the case of the Liulitun
waste incineration power
plant in Beijing
Yanwei Li
Nanjing Normal University, China
China’s growing number of environmental conflicts represents a significant challenge to
local governments, who are charged with responding to, and resolving disputes.
However, little is known about how these environmental conflicts are resolved. This
article reports an in-depth case study concerning the construction of a waste incinera-
tion power plant in Liulitun, Beijing, which was strongly opposed by local residents. We
argue that the Chinese state is responsive to the demands of citizens and continuously
adjusts its strategies in resolving social conflicts. We first identify six different govern-
ment strategies: go-alone, suppression, tension reduction, giving in, nonassisted nego-
tiation, and mediation. Then, we distinguish six conditions that explain the application of
government strategies: the nature of protests, the position of higher level governments,
the stage of the project, the involvement of national mass media, the involvement of
activists, and the occurrence of events. We find that local governments in Beijing
changed their strategies from go-alone, to tension reduction, to giving in, and the six
conditions identified are useful in explaining these changes.
China, environmental conflicts, governance, government strategy
Public Policy and Administration
2019, Vol. 34(2) 189–209
!The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0952076717709521
Corresponding author:
YanweiLi, Department of Public Administration, School of Public Administration, Nanjing Normal University,
Nanjing City, Jiangsu Province 210023, China.
Environmental disputes have become commonplace in China: according to one
estimate, the number of conf‌licts over environmental issues in China increased
by 25% annually between 1997 and 2009 (Hou and Zhang, 2009). A recent mani-
festation of this trend is the emergence of high-prof‌ile conf‌licts in urban China over
the siting of projects such as waste incinerators and chemical plants, which are
perceived to bring negative environmental, health, and f‌inancial impacts (Johnson,
2013; Li et al., 2016a). Since the 2007 demonstration against the construction of a
paraxylene (PX) chemical plant in Xiamen, where thousands of protestors took to
the streets to oppose the project’s construction, urban conf‌licts have occurred in
numerous cities across the country (Li, 2016). Public opposition has resulted in the
delay or even cancellation of large-scale projects. Resolving environmental disputes
ef‌fectively has become a crucial issue for Chinese of‌f‌icials, as it has been for gov-
ernments around the world for many decades (Li et al., 2016b).
Scholars of environmental conf‌licts in Western societies have described them as
being highly complex, af‌fecting unpredictable interests (such as the interest of future
generations), and involving considerable ‘‘externalities’’ (Susskind and Weinstein,
1980). In the second half of the 20th century, these countries experienced many envir-
onmental conf‌licts centered on public opposition to locally unwanted land use facilities
such as prisons, airports, and waste treatment infrastructures that local residents
shunned because of their perceived negative impact on quality of life (see, e.g. Kraft
and Clary, 1991). Project proponents labeled this the ‘‘not-in-my-back-yard’’
(NIMBY) syndrome, a pejorative term that depicted local residents as self‌ish and
irrational obstacles to much-needed public facilities (Wolsink, 1994).
Governments adopted various strategies to overcome NIMBY conf‌licts, includ-
ing through preempting opposition, ‘‘decide–announce–defend,’’ and bartered con-
sent (Kasperson and Kasperson, 2005). However, the negotiation and mediation
approach was later established as ‘‘best practice’’ to resolve the NIMBY response
in many Western democracies (Glasbergen, 1995; Van Bueren et al., 2003). This
approach prioritized negotiation between stakeholders in environmental conf‌licts
with the aim of seeking common ground for achieving a jointly acceptable (win–
win or zero-plus) solution (Bingham, 1986). Scholarly criteria to evaluate the out-
come of this approach include the creation of an integrated solution that increases
the benef‌its of all involved stakeholders, the increase of trust during the interaction
process, and the establishment of new institutions to facilitate interactions and
collaboration among dif‌ferent actors (Klijn and Koppenjan, 2016).
In China, local of‌f‌icials are responsible for resolving disputes in their jurisdic-
tions. This results in the adoption of a diverse array of dispute resolution strategies,
ranging from accommodation to suppression. Unlike totalitarian countries, China’s
‘‘responsive authoritarian’’ system increasingly allows the public to express opinions
and play constructive roles in environmental governance, so long as they do not
challenge the one-party system (Weller, 2008). For example, the Xiamen anti-PX
dispute was resolved when the local government caved in to protestor demands and
relocated the project to another city, with state media praising the local government
190 Public Policy and Administration 34(2)

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