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Li Yanhong at Sun Yat Sen University

Yanhong Li, Vice Dean and Associate Professor of Communications at Sun Yat Sen University, offers an example of ancient organizing history in China: a case from four years ago. She tells us about a set of protests against a garbage incinerator in Panyu district in Guangzhou, where middle class, well educated citizens challenged the incinerator and managed to get the incinerator moved to another district.

Professor Li’s work focuses on the narrative these activists created. The government advanced the idea that there were zero risks associated with this garbage incinerator. The debate focused on questions of risk and balancing this risk with rewards. She references the “risk society” theory, proposed by sociologist Ulrich Beck. In this theory, we accept the idea that living in a society has some risks. Humans develop tools to survive in a risky society, including the ability to rationally assess risks involved with our behaviors. For instance, we rely on expert opinion to evaluate the level of risk we are taking in consuming a product or taking an action. Experts and scientists, however, always have controversies and disagreements. We may rely on experts, but we will still have risks based on the disagreements between these experts.

In risk society, we are always involved with self-reflection. Beck notes that people in a risky society are always interested in these risks and in the debates between experts. The Chinese government has started listening to professionals and experts, and introduced into political debate the idea of risk management. However, this idea of risk management is still very new to Chinese government thinking, and decisionmaking is very heavily influenced by stakeholders, like the businesses or projects regulated.

Professor Li’s work looks at whether mass media in China takes seriously its role as helping audiences understand and navigate risk. She studied Southern Metropolis and News Express, two papers she saw as very representative of Chinese mass media. She considered a three month period where local residents and policymakers were most active in discussing this issue. The texts considered include about 100 reports in each paper, which suggests intense coverage.

The main conflict is the conflict over a right to have a voice in the policy-making process. The government claimed that the incinerator is zero-risk, relying on expert reviews and assertions that the technology is highly advanced and offered no risk of exposure to dioxin. Both sides drew on experts, but the government shifted to a reliance on social policy experts, using a policy rationale of “reasonable” balance.

The government tried to constrain who could participate in the debate, limiting participation to those who lived within 3km of the proposed plant… though citizens argued that people more than 3km away from the plant would be able to smell the odor of the garbage. People who lived near another plant talked about problems with odor, with water pollution and increased cancer list, relying on their personal experience to challenge expert narratives. This argument became known as “experienced rationality”, arguments rooted in local knowledge of conditions on the ground.

Media tended to focus on frame of “procedural justice”, a question of whether the government had followed proper procedures in acquiring land, getting perspectives of local residents, etc. Eventually, the media came to a conspiracy frame, considering the interests of the companies in building the plant as a way of structuring the narrative about the incinerator. An internet story revealed a close relationship between the owner of the proposed plant and the local environmental regulators, suggesting collusion to make this plant possible. This framework of interest, the idea of “what’s the real reason” behind the plant, became a compelling narrative.

A discussion that was originally about risk and expert opinion turned into a discourse about conspiracy, a narrative that moved from low-risk into a deeply risky space, where wealthy and powerful people are able to ignore societal considerations of risk. The analysis is significant because it’s a place where media has been able to challenge ideas of risk and government narratives about expertise.

I asked Professor Li what ultimately happened to the incinerator – it ended up in another community, which also protested, but less successfully. I asked whether the community where it ended up was a poorer community. It was, but Professor Li urged me not to conclude that the outcome was purely about the government selecting a poorer neigborhood – it was in part about moving to a more viable dialog about risk, not just a dialog about “zero risk”.