Will NIMBYISM Advance Democracy in China? – a Visitor’s View

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By Jay Vincent, Senior Vice President for Business Development

The Saint Consulting Group

I spent more than half of December 2010 in China traveling with the American Council of Young Political Leaders and a group of talented young American leaders.  Our travels were extensive as we made our way from big cities like Shanghai and Beijing to smaller like Nanchang and Fuhzou.  In total we traveled to more than 20 cities and townships.  It was an amazing and educational trip for sure.

The most important observation I had while there concerned the march of democracy.  Despite all of the prophecies that China would march towards democracy with the advent of the internet and the opening of markets, my view then was that democracy is not really on the march as much as most of us believe.  Yet, since my trip I have noticed more and more articles regarding what people in our profession may call NIMBYism coming out of China.

While that may be the pejorative word for opposition concerning land use, in this case NIMBYism may be the spark that ignites the fire that will bring a more western view of democracy to China.  Consider the BBC article I read this morning.  Villagers say local officials have taken their land and not given them proper compensation.  The government has earmarked the land for development of some kind.  This is not the only example either.  Citizens have protested against power plants, dams, infrastructure projects and even malls.  Our Chinese hosts last December made sure to let me know this too.  They wanted me to view this as an example of progress towards democracy.  Yet, the clashes continue and so do the arrests.

What makes these protests different is the willingness of protestors to clash with government officials and the general public opinion in favor of the villagers.  When it comes to land rights there is something different.  Linking the word rights to land is easier than say linking the word rights to some debatable set of human rights.

Land is passed down from generation to generation.  It is a basic link for a community.  It is something that joins them all despite differing opinions on universal human rights or the role of government in society.  So, when I ask the question  will NIMBYISM advance democracy in China, my gut tells me YES.  But only time will tell.

Jay Vincent is senior vice president for business development and business practice leader for energy for The Saint Consulting Group. Email vincent@tscg.biz or phone 312.212.8889

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