The people have spoken

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2011, 12:00am


The spontaneous and peaceful protest against a toxic chemical plant in Dalian on Sunday was a landmark success, and the first time that many of the tens of thousands of protesters who took part had engaged in such an act of defiance.

Bowing to protesters' demands, authorities immediately ordered the Dalian Fujia Petrochemical Company to shut down. Although the plant was still in operation on Monday, state news agency Xinhua reported that it had initiated shutdown procedures and would be relocated. Rumours say it will moved elsewhere in Liaoning province, to Changxing Island, about 100 kilometres north of Dalian.

Some analysts say the protest was yet another display of people power in China and, perhaps more importantly, of the influence of an emerging middle class, which could inspire people in other parts of the country to follow suit. But others caution that the achievement may be hard to duplicate, given authorities' obsession with stability and their abhorrence of organised defiance, and that notions about a coming of age for China's civil society are wishful thinking.

'We did it! I'm proud of myself and my fellow participants,' said one protester, a 29-year-old office clerk who declined to give her name for fear of reprisal.

She said it was a spontaneous demonstration prompted by an outcry over the possibility of pollution. The city of six million people narrowly avoided a major spill at the plant last week when Typhoon Muifa breached a dyke.

'I got the information about the protest 'stroll' on MSN messenger from a colleague. I went there with a couple of friends because we knew our lives were at stake,' she said. 'It was the experience of a lifetime for me because I'd only seen street protests in other countries on TV before, and I never thought I'd take part in one in my home city.'

Another participant in the protest said few demonstrators had even heard of the toxic chemical called paraxylene, of which the company produces 700,000 tonnes a year, before last week's scare. The chemical, commonly known as PX, is widely used in paints and plastics.

Although scientists can't definitively say whether the chemical is a carcinogen, they say it can damage the central nervous system, liver and kidneys, and chronic exposure may result in death.

'We didn't have the faintest idea just a week or so ago about what PX was or how harmful it could be,' said the 35-year-old employee of a foreign company, who also declined to give his full name.

He said everyone, including his parents, began to look for information about PX and the Fujia plant after calls for the protest mounted in internet forums, on instant-messaging services and via the Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog service.

'The more we knew about the PX project, the angrier we became about the unscrupulous plant and the government that kept us in the dark about it for so long,' he said.

Some of that anger was directed at local authorities, whose credibility was damaged after revelations that the controversial project, listed as a priority by the city government, was allowed to operate illegally for months before it received environmental approvals.

Representing an investment worth more than 60 billion yuan (HK$73.29 billion), the plant is one of the country's biggest producers of the toxic chemical, which is manufactured about 20 kilometres upwind from the city centre.

The crowds of protesters swarmed into People's Square in front of the city government headquarters on Sunday morning, where they unfurled banners and chanted slogans such as 'Get out of Dalian, PX project' and 'Stop polluting and give me back my beautiful city.'

Local authorities were put on highest alert hours before the demonstrators began to gather, with thousands of troops, riot police and paramilitary officers, including many sent from neighbouring cities, deployed on major roads leading to the city centre.

While most state-run media kept silent about the protest, its events unfolded live on microblogging sites such as Weibo, despite increased censorship. The demonstration drew nationwide attention, with photos and postings from the rally being reposted faster than censors could delete them.

The office clerk there said: 'It is so disappointing that our media failed to tell the people about what actually happened. We protested against the Fujia plant, not the government. There is no reason for the government to feel threatened by us.'

Xinhua confirmed in an English-language report that scuffles had occurred between demonstrators and riot police, but gave little other information.

People in many other mainland cities, where similar PX projects are located, have already begun to debate the possibility of street protests as a last resort.

In Nanjing, where a project producing 600,000 tonnes of PX a year was built just three kilometres from a university town and 20 kilometres from the city centre, residents said they felt encouraged by the outcome of the Dalian protests after years of unsuccessful opposition.

Citing government statistics, newspaper the 21st Century Business Herald said Nanjing was one of 14 mainland cities where large PX projects were either being built or were operating.

Analysts said it was an open secret that most large petrochemical projects were virtually exempt from laws requiring environmental checks upon completion of construction before they can officially open.

'The governments at all levels tend to be very practical when dealing with conflicts between economic priorities and environmental principles,' said a Beijing-based analyst close to the Ministry of Environmental Protection who declined to be named. 'Their consensus remains that environmental concerns have to give way to economic and political interests, even if it comes at the expense of public interests.'

Professor Ai Nanshan, an environmental scientist at Sichuan University, lamented the popular argument among senior mainland officials that the deadly accidents which have plagued the petrochemical sector are largely unavoidable, given the stage of China's industrialisation.

'Apart from their acknowledgement of huge safety and environmental risks, we should ask ourselves if we need to build so many petrochemical projects in close proximity to every major city,' he said.

Ma Jun, from the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the overconcentration of petrochemical projects along the Bohai Sea in the northeast posed grave safety and environmental challenges that local authorities may not be capable of tackling.

'A flurry of industrial accidents in Dalian has shown that safety hazards, exacerbated by the local government's ambitions to push for a petrochemical boom, may have exceeded acceptable limits and its current level of risk-management capabilities,' Ma said.

Despite warnings from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and other experts, at least 38 plants, including Fujia, have been built in an area of less than six square kilometres on the Dagushan Peninsula, one of four petrochemical zones in Dalian.

Professor Zhu Lijia, a public policy specialist at the Chinese Academy of Governance, noted that local authorities, obsessed with achieving rapid gross domestic product growth, have been given plenty of leeway to continue their blind pursuit of industrialisation at an appalling social and environmental cost.

'As a result, Beijing's pledges about economic transformation have largely remained empty talk so far,' he said. More mass protests look set to follow, he said, and noted that many demonstrations in recent years, on a wide range of social and environmental grievances, had turned violent when local authorities retaliated with a swift crackdown.

But the success of the Dalian protests may prove difficult to replicate, says Greenpeace campaigner Ma Tianjie, who noted there had been only a few cases in recent years where public opinion had succeeded in getting development-minded local authorities to overturn decisions.

Burgeoning environmental and social activism can also prove harmful to personal safety, as in the case of environmentalist turned activist Tan Zuoren. Tan, who was active in protests against the building of a petrochemical plant near Chengdu in May 2008, was sentenced to five years in prison for 'inciting subversion of state power'.

Xiong Wei, a lobbyist for parliamentary democracy in Beijing, said the unsanctioned Dalian demonstration should not be seen as a trend in the development of society.

'The protest occurred only because locals ran out of other, lawful options. Its success depended largely on the fact that the Dalian demonstrators were mostly well-educated and affluent, and that the Dalian government was willing to compromise,' Xiong said. 'Those preconditions can hardly be copied in other places.'

Additional reporting by Laura Zhou and Karen Zhang


The height, in metres, of the dyke built to protect the PX plant. After Typhoon Muifa breached the dyke, its waves came within 50 metres of the plant