"No major projects can be launched without social risk evaluations," said Zhou Shengxian, the environment minister, at a news conference on Monday. "By doing so, I hope we can reduce the number of mass incidents in the future." The national government has made such statements before, but this is the first time that the cabinet has ordered social risk assessments. Bradsher explains, the move is "aimed at curtailing the large and increasingly violent environmental protests of the last year, which forced the suspension or cancellation of chemical plants, coal-fired power plants and a giant copper smelter."
It is unclear how the social risk assessments will be conducted, but Zhou indicated that "they would involve looking at the likelihood that a project would set off a public backlash." Some local governments in China already have these procedures in place, but more action on environmental issues is needed. The mass protests, says Zhou, happen due to mistakes from projects that "start without official approval, without proper environmental impact assessments and without an assessment of community sentiment, and weak local governments may also be a factor."
"The environmental agencies feel they have been put under too much pressure, beyond the authority they've got," said Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. He explains, "Many environmental officials in China want the introduction of social risk assessments because protests against industrial projects often involve broader issues than just the environment and may extend to questions like whether the land for the project was lawfully obtained with proper compensation for its owners."
Each new protest in recent months has set off frenzied national discussions on the Internet, adds Bradsher, and topped most-searched subjects lists. The protests have also been fueled by youths using "social media to coordinate their activities during clashes with security forces - trends that are certain to have dismayed the country's political leadership."