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China imposes social risk test on big projects

Goal is to ease environmental demonstrations

BEIJING — China’s Cabinet has ordered that all major industrial projects must pass a ‘‘social risk assessment’’ before they begin, a move aimed at curtailing the large and increasingly violent environmental protests of the past year, which forced the suspension or cancellation of chemical plants, coal-fired power plants, and a giant copper smelter.

The disclosure came at a news conference Monday held in conjunction with the 18th Communist Party Congress, at which several senior officials addressed social issues ahead of the once-in-a decade transition of power in the Chinese leadership.

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‘‘No major projects can be launched without social risk evaluations,’’ Zhou Shengxian, the environment minister, said at the news conference. ‘‘By doing so, I hope we can reduce the number of mass incidents in the future.’’

The Communist Party congress, which runs through Wednesday, will begin the process of picking a new generation of leaders to run China, the world’s number-two economy.

When the environmental protests began, they drew mostly middle-age and older Chinese who had little to lose if the police put disparaging remarks about them into the files that the government maintains on every citizen.

But over the past several months, angry youths have gathered from several towns and have used social media to coordinate their activities during clashes with security forces — new trends that are certain to have dismayed the country’s political leadership.

The government had previously said on several occasions that it was studying ways to conduct social risk evaluations, and the current Five-Year Plan through 2015 calls for a mechanism to be created to make such assessments.

Some local and provincial governments already have procedures for assessing whether a community will reject a planned project, separate from environmental risk assessments.

But Zhou is the first to say that the Cabinet, formally known as the State Council, has actually ordered that no more major projects be started without a social risk assessment, said Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, one of the best-known environmental groups in Beijing.

Zhou also noted that effective Sept. 1, all government agencies in China had been ordered to make public all environmental impact assessments by posting them on the Internet.

Zhou said that mass protests tended to happen because of one or more of the mistakes that the government now intended to remedy. These mistakes involve projects that start without official approval, without proper environmental impact assessments, and without an assessment of community sentiment, he said.

He did not provide a description of how social risk assessments would be conducted, but he indicated that they would involve looking at the likelihood that a project would set off a public backlash.

Societies inevitably become more aware of environmental issues as they develop, and this is happening in China, Zhou said. He took a fairly sympathetic tone to the protesters, changing tack only once, when he used a derogatory term for those who object only to the proximity of a project and not to its environmental fundamentals. ‘‘We are beginning to see a ‘not in my backyard’ phenomenon,’’ he said.

China has paid a heavy environmental price for its growth. Acrid smog coats most large cities for much of the year, while many lakes and rivers are contaminated with heavy metals and toxic chemicals.

Thousands of young protesters fought with the riot police for two nights in early July in Shifang, in western China, prompting the local government to announce the cancellation of a huge copper smelter that was seen by the demonstrators as a pollution threat.

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