Stealth protest over waste burning takes off

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 November, 2009, 12:00am

It is a loosely organised campaign, with no obvious leader and most of those taking part getting involved in civic action for the first time.

But the activities of a growing protest movement in the Guangzhou satellite town of Panyu against a 930 million yuan (HK$1.05 billion) incinerator planned on their doorsteps is catching the eyes of the community - and the authorities.

Their first public action, a planned demonstration outside the provincial government headquarters last Sunday, was called off after police got wind of it and detained some of the participants.

Since then residents of Clifford Estates - including some Hong Kong people - and neighbouring middle-class developments in Panyu's Daishi area have been quietly pressing on, gathering signatures on a petition that now has more than 20,000 names, posting information on the internet and producing T-shirts and bumper stickers.

But they are unsure how to proceed after the police action, fearing that anyone who takes a lead could be in trouble.

The planned site for the 365-hectare plant with a capacity of 2,000 tonnes a day is three kilometres from Clifford Estates - a sprawling community of more than 100,000 people where a third of the homes are owned by Hongkongers - and two kilometres from several other populous residential developments.

While the city government, which plans to build the incinerator, says its emissions will be safe, critics fear contamination from the deadly chemical dioxin and say it will be an eyesore for passengers arriving on the new high-speed train from Hong Kong when it opens in 2015.

'We don't want this new neighbour,' said Zeng Jun, who owns a three-bedroom apartment at Clifford Estates. 'My son is only one month old. We moved here early this year because we want our son to grow up breathing fresh air, not dioxin. If we had known they were going to build an incinerator here, we would never have moved to Panyu.'

A Hong Kong retiree, a Ms Hung, said she now regretted buying her flat in Clifford Estates.

'I come here frequently and every time I come, I spend at least a month here. If I had known they would build an incinerator nearby, I would have bought somewhere else.'

Sun Yat-sen University professor Zheng Tianxiang , who lives two kilometres from the incinerator site, said: 'The first thing that greets visitors when they step out of the railway station will be the incinerator burning rubbish. It will be very embarrassing.'

The protest movement grew after opponents began exchanging views on internet discussion forums and someone suggested holding a meeting outside the main entrance of Clifford Estates last Sunday morning.

The plan was to gather as many property owners as possible, after which car owners would drive to the provincial government's head office in the name of 'drive for fun on Sunday', while those without cars walked around the neighbourhood.

But during that week the authorities started to react.

On Thursday, November 5, the city government ordered all local media to stop publishing reports about the incineration plant.

Then owners active in the protest started received unexpected 'invitations to have tea' at the nearby police station.

Then, last Sunday, six people were arrested at Clifford Estate's main entrance for inciting unauthorised gatherings. Five property owners at a nearby estate were also arrested when they were trying to gather signatures.

With the planned activities cancelled, a Lijiang Gardens resident set off on a protest odyssey of his own.

Wearing a face mask and an anti-incinerator T-shirt, he went to every Guangzhou metro station to spread the message and was stopped by Panyu police after he returned home.

'We will not give up,' said one property owner active in the movement. 'We will continue to spread the message, raising people's awareness so they know dioxin is toxic and will pollute our air and our soil. No one can escape it, unless you don't breathe or don't eat,' said the owner, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid the attention of the authorities.

The uproar burst onto internet discussion forums about a month ago after a Guangzhou newspaper reported the incinerator project. Interest was further stoked by the publication of a survey by the Guangdong Provincial Research Centre, a think tank for provincial leaders, early this month. More than 97 per cent of the 1,550 people surveyed opposed the plan, and 93 per cent said they did not trust the government's promise that the incinerator would have little impact on public health and the environment. Ninety-two per cent were unhappy with officials' lack of transparency.

The traditionally vocal Guangzhou press reported the survey prominently before further reports were banned the following day.

Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences researcher Peng Peng said the mistrust between the government and Panyu residents was so serious that no single measure could solve it. He urged the government to hire an independent party to review the scheme, including whether the chosen location was the best.

But not all property owners are with the protesters.

Yeung Ching-yiu, who bought a two-bedroom apartment 10 years ago, said: 'I trust the government. China is very advanced now. But I think it is good that someone is coming out to protest. It will force the government to do even better.'

Hot issue

The city government belatedly banned reports about the incinerator

In a survey of 1,550 people published early this month, this percentage opposed the plan: 97%