Kunming environmental protest
On May 16, 2013, hundreds of people took to the streets in Kunming to protest against the construction of a petrochemical plant near the Yunnan provincial capital, which they say could pollute the city's water supply and air. Protesters confronted the city's mayor Li Wenrong, who promised to hold meetings to debate the project. Officials had already pledged to have a public debate after residents held a first rally against the project on May 4.
Governments toughen stance on environmental protesters amid Kunming, Chengdu actions
Concerns over social stability sidelined as authorities view 'economic growth' as priority
Growth-obsessed local governments have become more sophisticated at handling rising environmental protests on the mainland, as recent cases against controversial chemical projects in southwestern cities Kunming and Chengdu show.
After two street protests in Kunming this month against a controversial petroleum refinery and a related chemical plant producing paraxylene - a suspected carcinogen - residents in the Yunnan provincial capital have yet to call it a victory, as a double-faced Kunming government promises to heed public opinion while simultaneously scrambles to muzzle protesters.
In Chengdu, provincial capital of Sichuan, a planned protest against a PX project in nearby Pengzhou on May 4 was thwarted after authorities pre-emptively sealed off several landmarks in the city, with police claiming their large presence was part of an earthquake drill.
In both cases, the city governments have not made final decisions on the fates of the projects. But such practices already signaled a breakaway from a previous pattern of government response to mass environmental demonstrations that emerged over the past years, where local authorities would swiftly succumb to public pressure and scrap the controversial projects.
Since 2007, all previous protests against PX plants in cities of Xiamen , Dalian and Ningbo were ended with local governments backtracking and agreeing to either cancel or relocate the projects, as the public feared pollution from producing the chemical - used in making fabrics and plastic bottles - could cause cancer.
Two other industrial projects - a wastewater pipeline and a heavy-metal smelting plant - were also called off following demonstrations last year. With environmental protests becoming a major cause of social unrest on the mainland, the decisions were once hailed as indicators of governments' increasing willingness to heed the public voice.
However, such a pattern may no longer apply to governments of less-developed western cities - which have a stronger urge to grow their economy in the national "go west" campaign.
Kunming authorities went all out in their attempts to nip in the bud a second public rally planned for May 16, following the first one on May 4, which was joined by more than 1,000 locals.
Gesturing to be more open on the chemical project, Kunming Mayor Li Wenrong offered to let the public decide whether the southwestern city - a popular tourist hotspot - needs a PX project in July, when feasibility studies are scheduled to be completed. The city government also spared no efforts to allay public fears about pollution and health impacts at a press conference on May 10 and two discussion sessions with small groups of residents on following days, assuring them the PX chemical was not carcinogenic and had only a very low toxicity, and justifying a massive refinery facility owned by China National Petroleum Corp citing its "strategic importance" for Yunnan's economic development.
And the moves were lauded by an Op-Ed in People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, on Wednesday: "It is the sincerity [displayed by Kunming's government] that helped to diffuse the public outrage and win back trust for the government, and found a way out for PX projects."
But what largely went missing in the mainland's media reports were Kunming authorities' overwhelming efforts to prevent a potential second protest.
Not only were vocal activists in Kunming invited to "have tea" with police - an informal way of questioning in the run-up to May 16, all university and college students were asked to stay on campus that day, and staff working for government-affiliated bodies banned from leaving.
Study sessions for CNPC's refinery, on techniques, economic feasibility and significance, were organised by all government-linked bodies throughout Yunnan, even in kindergartens. A local activist said he was asked to have tea and eat with staff from a local community for most of the day on Thursday, and warned not to talk to foreign media.
Despite all the efforts, hundreds of Kunming people still showed up for a protest on Thursday, which later turned into a march in the city centre, forcing mayor Li out for an impromptu face-to-face dialogue with protesters. A protester said he was not afraid of being arrested as the demonstrators were only expressing their oppositions in a peaceful way. "I don't think the police dare to detain people, and I expect the refinery to be eventually called off, because maintaining social stability is the government's priority now."
But police intensified their monitoring of local activists following the second protest, despite mayor Li Wenrong promising improved government transparency and greater tolerance of opposing opinions.
Some environmental experts have warned that the local governments might lose their previous dominating position on deciding industrial projects as a result of rising environmental awareness among more affluent urban residents and their increasing courage to challenge government decisions.
A recent survey conducted by Public Opinion Research Centre found that 80 per cent of 3,400 people surveyed believed environmental protection should have a higher priority than economic development.