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In China, thousands protest against pollution

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Kai Ryssdal: A lot of people who know a whole lot about China say that if you want to know what the next big flashpoint over there is gonna be, keep an eye on the environment.

There were huge and violent protests this past weekend near Shanghai. More than 10,000 people trying get a paper mill waste water pipeline stopped. Stopped it was, by local officials.

But environmentalism in the world’s second biggest economy still has a ways to go. Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz reports from Shanghai.

Rob Schmitz: Years ago, as China stood on the precipice of an era of unbridled economic growth, its leadership made a deal with the people: you don’t challenge our authority, we give you a better quality of life. For the Chinese, ‘better quality of life’ used to mean the freedom to make money.

Not anymore, says U.C. Irvine China historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: They’re not willing to accept the idea that being able to buy more stuff at the store means your quality of life is improving if you’re worried about the pollution levels of the water you drink, if you’re worried about the quality of the air you breathe, if you’re worried about whether your children will grow up in a decent environment.

This weekend’s protests followed similar ones last month, when thousands in Southwestern China staged violent riots to protest a planned metals plant. The result was the same: the people prevailed, and the local government scrapped the plans for the factory. Despite these victories, Ma Tianjie of Greenpeace in Beijing says the Chinese government is responding too slowly to the public.

Ma Tianjie: You cannot wait until the people get on the streets to make a decision or change a decision. I think participation should happen way before that point.

As it stands, the environmental assessment for a new factory in China doesn’t allow for public participation at any stage. But this soon may change, says Ma. There’s been a push by academics in China to involve the public at a much earlier stage in the development of an industrial project so that the violence China saw over the weekend will be prevented.

 In Shanghai, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

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