Officials in China have to take environmental concerns seriously

Protest against petrochemical plant in Shandong shows that the government is still not taking on board public unease over projects that affect everyday life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 10:05pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 10:21pm

The authorities have announced they are seeking public feedback on a plan to build yet another giant petrochemical plant in mainland China. Residents of Longkou, a coastal city in Shandong (山東), delivered it in less than a week. Hundreds of demonstrators marched outside the headquarters of the district government, with photos and videos on microblogs showing them holding up placards and shouting slogans about pollution concerns.

The swift, organised response is understandable. Consultations with the public on the mainland over major projects that will or could materially affect their living environment and amenity tend not to last very long, leaving little time to present well researched and articulated arguments opposing them or proposing modifications. This suits officials keen to promote growth through investment and muzzle opposition. But amid rising public fears over the dangers of pollution, the time is long past for just waving projects through without weighing the environmental and social costs.

Hundreds march in protest against plan for petrochemical plant in eastern China

There is, however, another understandable reason for the swift public outcry, reflected in one microblog asking whether officials had not learned the lessons from the devastating chemical warehouse blast in the port of Tianjin (天津). The explosion and fire last August, just across the Bohai sea from Longkou, cost 173 lives. The proposed Yulong Petrochemical Base would cover more than 50 sq km and produce more than 50 million tonnes of refined oil, as well as petrochemical products including the controversial paraxylene or PX, a chemical used in making plastic bottles and polyester that can be dangerous if inhaled or ingested.

Firefighters tackling huge blaze at petrochemical plant in China

A statement posted on the city government’s microblog has denied construction has begun, said the environmental assessment would stop and pledged to step up efforts against pollution. It remains to be seen if officials are really listening to the public. It would be more convincing, and conducive to confidence and social stability, if there had been a proper consultation process, with due notice and a reasonable deadline.