Beijing shows listening side on trash burners to appease public, but politics still off limits

To help sell the public on the need for one of the world's largest trash incinerators in the mountains in west Beijing, Communist Party officials bused in hundreds of people for special tours. They held talks with residents and handed out questionnaires.

State-owned steel producer Shougang Group said they only started building the Lujiashan incinerator, which opened in November, after a survey showed 92 percent of respondents said they were in favor — a result that some residents suspect was manipulated by authorities.

Still, the attempts to curry public support aren't exactly what you might expect in Communist China, where authorities have in the past simply built key pieces of infrastructure wherever they wanted. Conveying a greater willingness to listen on some issues such as the environment appears to be an attempt to keep public unhappiness in check and maintain the party's grip on power even as it continues to squash political dissent and censor the media.

Authorities are trying to balance public dissatisfaction with the need to support China's rapid development.

Coping with growing amounts of trash, for instance, is a huge challenge. Beijing had set a target of building nine incinerators by 2015. But the Lujiashan plant is only the fourth completed, partly because of what city officials attribute to "Not In My Backyard" sentiment among the generally more educated residents of the capital.

"We have to build more waste disposal facilities," said Zhang Xiaoguang, director of Beijing's environmental management office of solid waste. "But at the same time we have to take public opinion into consideration."

Such sensitivity to public opinion has been seen in other parts of the country, particularly in wealthier cities, where a burgeoning middle class is demanding a better quality of life.

In September, the Communist Party branch in Guangdong province's Boluo county promised not to decide on the location of a planned waste incinerator without public approval after thousands of residents held demonstrations over two weekends, sometimes clashing with police.

That followed other concessions from provincial governments pledging to postpone the construction of or relocate chemical factories after public protests.

Critics argue that the restraint is for appearances only and that authorities simply carry on with plans once the protests fade. But experts see a political motive.

"If they (the government) are seen as totally insensitive even to economic and environmental demands, then more people will be holding demonstrations and so forth and this will exacerbate the problem of instability," said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The mandate appears to be coming from the very top.

After an important meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee in late 2013, the official Xinhua News agency published a list of 10 things showing government responsiveness. They included allowing couples to have more than one child, reforming the residence registration system to permit more farmers to become city residents and scaling back the number of university entrance exams.

And last year, Premier Li Keqiang declared "war" on pollution amid growing public alarm about health consequences.

Plant managers say they are still trying to win over residents by inviting them on tours where they can walk along the incinerator's shiny floors to see large metal claws lifting week-old fermented waste from the bottom of a 25-meter-high (80-foot-high) container. They pass framed photos of other incinerators in countries such as Austria, plus charts showing that Lujiashan's emission standards are more stringent than those of the European Union.

Zhang Futian, party secretary with responsibility for the incinerator, said plant managers give visitors reports on its air emissions and water recycling system to deal with residents' "misunderstandings."

We "chat with them and they understand. But of course if we don't do well with the gas emissions and water discharge there will be big problems," Zhang said from the plant's master control room where large red characters on a wall spelled out the slogan, "Establish a positive environment-friendly public image."

Residents reached by phone said they opposed the incinerator.

"I climb the nearby mountains every morning and I can always see a large cloud of smoke coming out of the chimney," said a resident who would only give his surname, Song. "As for 92 percent of residents approving it, that's just impossible and the entire process was manipulated by the authorities."

A woman living in a nearby village who refused to give her name said she puts up with stinking water leaking from the garbage trucks and noise day and night from the incinerator despite living about 3 kilometers (nearly 2 miles away). "No one has ever approached me to ask me my opinion about building the incinerator," she said.

In recent years, Beijing's municipal government has consulted the public on increases in gas, electricity and transportation costs. The city recently proposed two options for how to increase bus and subway fares, and invited 10 members of the public into a 25-member panel to consult on the issue.

While one analyst said that such public consultations are aimed at lending legitimacy to official decisions, authorities are inclined to deal with people's non-political appeals quickly to alleviate social problems.

"If people are boiling with resentment, their governing status will be less secure," said Zhang Lifan, an independent political observer in Beijing.

The attempts to show sensitivity to the public comes as the Communist Party under President Xi Jinping has intensified efforts to stamp out any potential organized opposition to its rule, tightening restrictions on rights advocates and religious organizations. Authorities have tightened controls over online expression and have increasingly used criminal prosecution to punish speech they do not tolerate.

"They have adopted draconian methods to suppress political dissent," Lam said. "So I think they realize that if they also adopt draconian and extra heavy handed methods regarding other demands from the population ... they will really become enemies of the people."