In Fast-Growing China, a Warning About When Prosperity Isn't Enough

The coastal city of Dalian, a success story of China's economic boom, has seen protests as residents sense a decline

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A resident holds a sign reading "Say no to PX, give me back Dalian" among demonstrators there / Reuters

DALIAN, China -- What happens when the GDP in a Chinese city is still rising, but people begin to feel their quality of life is going down?

That wasn't a question I expected to be pondering when I traveled to this prosperous northeastern port city in China's Liaoning Province to investigate the back story of the stunning August 14 protests that had brought 12,000 residents to the streets, demanding the relocation of a nearby plant that manufactures a chemical called PX. But it turned out to be an impossible question to ignore.

For the last three decades, China's staggering economic growth has brought expanding opportunities and rising living standards to hundreds of millions. And social stability, as China's leaders know well, is far easier to maintain when people generally feel that life is getting better; the Communist government is authoritarian, but so long as it's able to deliver what most citizens want, its critics are fewer and quieter. It has no "mandate from heaven," as China's emperors once claimed, nor a popular mandate, but a de facto bargain. At some point, however, China's growth will inevitably slow -- perhaps in 10, 15, or 20 years, according to different estimates; or perhaps there will be a sudden crash and hard landing, as bear analysts James Chanos, Nouriel Roubini, and others have predicted. Much speculation surrounds what will happen next.

But even before an economic slowdown, another kind of strain is beginning to show: some of China's well-to-do are starting to decouple rising incomes alone from a rising sense of well-being. In recent years, growing fears about food safety (contaminated milk-powder for babies; exploding watermelons) and dangerous infrastructure (a high-speed train crash; collapsing buildings), among other concerns, have provoked public outcry and Internet maelstroms criticizing the government. In the minds of at least some Chinese urbanites, especially young parents, such worries are beginning to outweigh the appeal of a yet larger apartment or flashier car. Even for those who don't go so far as to conclude, as the activist-artist Ai Weiwei recently wrote in Newsweek of Beijing, that their hometown is a "nightmare city," the belief that rising GDP alone brings contentment and security is coming under question.

Or at least, that's what I was told by anxious Dalian citizens who joined the Aug. 14 protest.

On that drizzly Sunday morning, a throng of residents had packed the downtown People's Square, opposite Dalian's City Hall, some carrying hand-made placards that read: "Get out PX! Give us back the environment! Give us back Dalian!" It was one of the largest protests reported in China in the past decade. Remarkably, the city's top two officials, the mayor and the party secretary, quickly promised to relocate the factory. Cautious Dalian residents have taken those pledges with greater skepticism than much of the international media (which soon declared a victory for "people power"). They are now watching closely to see what happens next.

The chemical PX, manufactured at the Dalian-Fujia factory, is used to make polyester. The plant had not been linked to significant existing health problems in Dalian, but residents feared that a future tropical storm might rupture its chemical storage tanks, which are located near the coast, and inundate the city with toxic floodwaters. The protest came a few days after a real storm, Typhoon Muifa, had grazed the nearby coast, raising online discussions of a series of terrifying "what if" scenarios. Anxious predictions, as well as an anonymous online call to march on People's Square, had circulated through social media sites in the days before.

When I arrived in Dalian the following Tuesday, several people spoke with me about why they'd marched that Sunday, although most asked that their full names not be used in print. Typhoon Muifa, and the distress it whipped up, was clearly the immediate cause that led to the demonstration, but there was something else on their minds, too. Now, at last, they had cause to put a name to it.

And it was this: the surprising and chilling conviction that Dalian's best days were behind it. The prosperous city, their city, had seen its golden age come and go. Now daily life was more strained, and the city itself was literally falling apart. "Dalian used to be one of the most beautiful and great cities in China," one university professor told me. "But now things are all downhill." It's not that this despair caused the protest, but it contributed to an atmosphere of tension that proved highly flammable when the right match was lit.

If you have ever visited Dalian -- especially after a stop-off in, say, Wuhan or Hohhot or Lanzhou, or any other less prosperous Chinese city - this seems an incredulous claim. Dalian, after all, is regional host of the World Economic Forum meetings, a busy port and center of light manufacturing, and a cosmopolitan city with an Armani boutique and BMW dealership right on People's Road. There are no simmering ethnic tensions or nearby border disputes. According to government statistics, the economy grew at a whopping 15 percent in 2010. In one sense, Dalian seems to represent the most optimistic vision of China's future. What could there possibly be to complain about?

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Christina Larson is a writer based in Beijing and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy magazine. Her writing on China and the environment has appeared in the The New York Times, Boston Globe, The New Republic, Time, Scientific American, Smithsonian, and other publications.

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