China Tiananmen Square 2
Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Reuters

China's 18th Party Congress is under way and has addressed various issues that China's development faces and that concern the majority of its population.

At the forefront for many workers and peasants outside of the main cities is how development has affected their environment and livelihoods.

In a farewell report delivered at the opening of the congress Thursday, outgoing President Hu Jintao called on the Communist Party of China to open its ears to public opinion.

"Whenever we make a decision involving the immediate interests of the people, we must solicit their views on it," Hu said. "We must not do anything that may harm the interests of the people and must correct any action that causes damage to their interests."

But as many Chinese know, that's easier said than done.

The main concern of many provincial people is the environmental damage that factories and other development projects inflict on the lands and waters they rely on for farming and fishing. One story reported by Xinhua told of a fisherman in a small town near the Yangtze River, where villagers struggled to get the attention of local government when it was discovered that a chemical company was contaminating their water with formaldehyde.

After a series of protests, and damage done to their fishing, crops and water sources, the local government was finally convinced to order the plant to stop producing the toxic waste, and allocated money to clean up.

This past year, violent protests broke out over three different chemical sites. In each case, the public seemed to get its way, and the chemical projects were halted.

But the pattern of approving these factories and chemical plants without the consultation of public opinion persists, and is the root of the problem. When deciding to launch a potentially environmentally damaging project, authorities first consider funding money and logistical feasibility, but then often push the projects through without soliciting public opinion.

Wang Kaiyu, a sociologist from Anhui province, told Xinhua officials behind chemical industry projects "have not done well in publicizing scientific knowledge to ease public worries."

Though the goals of the public and the government seem to be the same -- as Hu Jintao put it, "making ecological progress" aiming for a "beautiful China"-- the reality of whether or not public opinion will still be considered is yet to be seen.

The chemical industry is a necessary component of China's continued economic success. Finding an environmentally friendly solution that won't harm progress while keeping public health in mind is going to be a difficult task. Striking a balance between economic development and public appeals, rather than the current development-driven model, is what will challenge China's future leadership.