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Protest in Xiamen in 2007
Pollution problems are a leading cause of unrest as China undergoes rapid economic development, and citizens have become more outspoken against environmentally risky projects in their backyards. Villagers have rioted over the dumping of toxic chemicals into streams on farmland; the poisoning of streams by mines; the seizing of land for poison-producing factories; the unwillingness of local officials to tackle environmental problems; and inability of the legal system to address their grievances. Protests often bring at least a temporary halt to such projects, particularly when they involve the urban middle class. But local officials who are under pressure to deliver economic growth often restart them once the outrage dies down.

Residents have become increasingly outspoken about pollution in their backyards. According to Reuters: Environmental “protests, which are tolerated more than those driven by political concerns, pose a conundrum for the authorities which want to maintain social stability but also present an image of listening to the needs of ordinary people. China sees around 180,000 demonstrations a year on a wide range of issues, including some against proposed chemical plants in what analysts have identified as a rising trend of environmentally-motivated "not in my backyard" protests.

“Mass incidents” — or riots and protests — sparked by environmental problems rose at a rate of 30 percent per year, for a while in the 2000s, according to China's environmental protection minister, Zhou Shengxian. In May 2008, 200 people protested the opening of an ethylene plant and oil refinery in the northern outskirts of Chengdu. Demonstrators in Tangshan, protesting a tire-recycling factories that produces toxic clouds upwind from an elementary school, hung banners and mounted speakers on pedicabs demanding the rubber factory comply with national pollution laws. Local officials threatened to takes away the jobs and pensions of the protestors and throw them in jail. The protesters collected money and took their issue to Beijing, where Communist party superiors pressured the officials in Tangshan to close the plant.

Some think that environmental issues may mobilize the masses to seek more rights, freedom and democracy as was somewhat the case in East Europe when Communism collapsed there. In 2005, there were 51,000 pollution-related protests and disputes, an increase of 30 percent from the previous year. In addition to this Beijing and local governments have been flooded with hundreds of thousands of environmental complaints. But while protests in middle-class cities like Dalian and Xiamen have succeeded, the government rarely gives in and demonstrations in rural villages don't often work. Protests are often localized and ineffectual. They often end with the government giving in to some token demand that means little in addressing bigger, more serious problems.

Reasons for Environmental Protests

Three decades of poorly regulated industrialization lies behind the surge in environmental protests. "The public is increasingly adopting a zero tolerance attitude against pollution," the state-run newspaper Global Times said in a commentary. The China Daily reported: The rapid rise in the number of environmental protests points to two conflicting tendencies: citizens' awakening environmental awareness and some local authorities' obsession with economic growth, even if it comes at the cost of the environment. The statistics released by an environmental expert at a lecture hosted by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on Friday show that the number of protests triggered by environmental concerns has been increasing by 29 percent annually since the late 1990s. The latest one was in Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang province, where people protested against the proposed expansion of a petrochemical plant late last week. [Source: China Daily, October 29, 2012 :]

“Given the central authorities' repeated emphasis on changing the country's development mode and the sustainability of the country's economic growth, as well as citizens' strong reservations about environmentally risky industrial projects, local governments need to change their mentality about growth. Too many local governments are still preoccupied with gross domestic product, the concern residents have demonstrated about the downsides of this preoccupation should serve as a reminder that the quality of growth is more important than quantity. :

“The conflicts that have arisen between residents and local governments, some of which have even developed into riots, show that some local leaders still need to acquaint themselves with the notion that residents' right to a healthy environment must be adequately respected. Once residents take to the streets or resort to other extreme actions in order to make their voices heard, local leaders should first reflect on how they have failed them, instead of accusing the citizens of damaging social stability. Leaders of Shifang, Southwest China's Sichuan province, recalled that the riot in July could have been avoided had the local government made more transparent the entire process for the planning of the copper plant and had more communication with residents. :

Protest That Shut Down Polluting Factories

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Dalian Protest in 2011
In July 2012, Chinese officials cancelled an industrial waste pipeline project after anti-pollution demonstrators occupied a government office in eastern China, destroying computers and overturning cars. In the same month, thousands took to the streets in Sichuan province's Shifang town to protest against a $1.6 billion copper refinery they feared would poison their families. The city government swiftly called off the project. In 2007, thousands of people staged rallies against the Tenglong Aromatic PX plant, a Taiwanese-financed venture that would have been built about 10 miles from the center of Xiamen.

In July 2009, January the Chinese government said it planned to move a $5 billion oil refinery and petrochemical plant in the south after years of public outcry. Wang Yang, the Communist Party chief of Guangdong, said the province would move the plant “a joint venture between China's Sinopec and the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation” because of opposition from the community and officials. “We only have one planet to live on, so whatever we do on this end will affect others on the other end,” Wang said. Edward Chan, a Greenpeace campaign manager based in Hong Kong, said, “The decision by the government shows that they do consider the opinions from different stakeholders across the region, which is a positive sign. Our worries now are that the residents [in the new area] are not as well-educated or informed, or may be more eager to look for economic development.” It is thought the factory will be relocated away from Nansha to Zhanjiang in western Guangdong, a less ecologically sensitive area. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, July 31, 2009]

In 2012 a paper plant project was abandoned following protests in the port city of Qidong, near Shanghai. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “Angry demonstrators entered a government office and smashed computers and destroyed furniture to protest a waste discharge plant that they said would pollute the water supply. In reaction, the local government said that plans for the discharge plant, which was to be part of a paper manufacturing plant, had been abandoned. “Reuters reported that about 1,000 protesters marched through the city in Jiangsu Province and that two police officers were badly beaten by demonstrators. The city sits on the mouth of the Yangtze River, and the local authorities have attracted pharmaceutical companies, chemical fertilizer plants and computer parts factories with tax breaks and other enticements.

“Some of the protesters argued that the wastewater plant would discharge effluent into the sea and harm the fishing industry. But most seemed to be concerned about drinking water. At an upscale computer store, an employee said most people were worried about how the discharge from the paper plant would affect the water supply.”The protesters are angry because the pipeline project will affect our water supplies,” she said. “I’m against the project, too.” “The owner of a drugstore said: “Everybody from the old to the young are against this project. Qidong people are hard-working people. Why should they have the project here?” The owner, an elderly woman, said local residents were not consulted about the paper plant or its discharge facilities. “All we know is that somebody from the higher levels decided it’s to be in Qidong,” she said. Several people said the local government sent text messages to residents and storekeepers asking them not to participate in the demonstration. A few days after the protests AP reported: “The paper factory at the centre of violent protests in Jiangsu at the weekend resumed production but plans were dropped at least temporarily for a waste water pipeline linked to the factory, which was the focus of the protests. The factory is operated by the Japanese company Oji Paper. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, July 28, 2012]

Villagers Protest Chinese Solar Factory Pollution

In September 2011, hundreds of residents protesting environmental contamination by a solar panel factory in Zhejiang Province stormed the factory and destroyed office equipment and vehicles.Elaine Kurtenbach of Associated Press wrote: “Police detained at least 20 people after hundreds of villagers in eastern China demonstrated against pollution they blame on a solar panel factory, with some protesters storming the compound and overturning vehicles, local authorities said. The government in Haining city, west of Shanghai, said police imposed traffic controls to keep order following three nights of gatherings by hundreds of residents. [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, Associated Press, September 18, 2011]

The factory, Zhejiang Jinko Solar Co. Ltd., was ordered to halt production lines emitting toxic gases or waste pending an investigation, the Haining government said in a statement. It ordered strict enforcement of environmental protection measures, but also "absolute efforts to ensure stability." Zhejiang Jinko Solar Co. is a subsidiary of a New York Stock Exchange-listed company, JinkoSolar Holding Co. According to the Haining city government, Zhejiang Jinko Solar's chairman, Li Xianhua, met with village representatives earlier in the month, but the villagers were dissatisfied with the company's response.

More than 500 people gathered outside the factory. Some charged into the factory compound, overturned eight company vehicles and destroyed its offices, the government said. The next day demonstrators damaged four police vehicles. Video footage posted on the website of the city government's information office showed that the factory's windows were smashed and dozens of police officers were deployed to the site. Police detained 20 people for various alleged offenses, including causing public disorder, vandalism and theft. A 33-year-old man surnamed Sun, meanwhile, was detained for allegedly "spreading false information online" earlier this month about an increase in cancer cases in the nearby village of Hongxiao, the statement said.

“The protests reflect the dirty side of clean energy. While use of solar power can reduce the need for burning heavily polluting coal and other fossil fuels, the process of producing photovoltaic cells uses various chemicals and materials that can also be toxic.Zhejiang Jinko Solar's waste disposal has been failing pollution tests since April and despite being warned by authorities, the plant has not effectively controlled the pollution, the official Xinhua News Agency cited Chen Hongming, deputy head of Haining's environmental protection bureau, as saying.

A 64-year-old Hongxiao villager surnamed Shi said not only does the factory discharge waste water into a river, it also spews dense smoke out of a dozen chimneys. "An elementary school and a kindergarten are located less than a kilometer (0.6 mile) from the plant. My house is only about 500 meters (550 yards) from the plant. Many fish died after the factory discharged waste into a small river," Shi said in a phone interview. "The villagers strongly request that this factory be moved to another area. I am very worried about the health of the younger generation," he said.

A few days after the protest Jinko Solar apologised and said it will do what's necessary to clean it up. The company acknowledged in a statement that initial tests showed pollutants may have reached a nearby river due to 'improper storage of waste containing flouride.' Jinko Solar said any deficiencies in environmental protection would be 'immediately remedied.' [Source: AP, September 20, 2011]

Violent Environmental Protests

In Hunan, villagers organized to protest the fouling of the Qingshui River from molybdenum mining operation in hills along the river. So much waste from the mines entered the river the water turned black, discoloring clothes washed in it and fouling rice paddies that relied on the river for irrigation water. In May 2005, residents of the village of Xiachaoshui raided the 200 mining sites and destroyed mining equipment with hand tools and bricks. What was remarkable about this protest is that local Communist leader failed to intervene, meaning they tacitly supported the protests. A few weeks earlier in the village of Guideng, villagers mounted a similar operation against a water-polluting vanadium refinery. There authorities joined in the raids and said they would damage more facilities and resign en masse unless Beijing did something to solve the problem.

In July 2009, about 1,000 people clashed with police in central Hunan after it was revealed that children there had high levels of lead in their blood as a result of being exposed to pollution from the Wugan manganese smelting plant. Enraged parents blocked a road and overturned a police car as they demanded free medical tests and treatments fo their children. Anger had been building for some time. Farm plots in the area lie unharvested as the soil has been poisoned to a depth of 20 centimeters. The well water has been deemed undrinkable.

Hunan Province is an important producer of heavy metals and one of the most polluted areas in China. In Shuangqiao village in Hunan Province, where more three people have died and 500 have been sickened been heavy metals such as cadium, protesters took their grievances to the Internet and drew attention their problem — resulting in the Xianghe chemical factory being shut down.

In August 2009, residents living near a faulty sewage works in southeastern China went on the rampage, smashing equipment, beating police and kidnapping local officials. Up to 200 people were involved in the unrest in Quanzhou in the coastal province of Fujian, which lies opposite Taiwan, the local Straits News reported. The problems started when the sewage works developed a fault, causing a bad odor and seepage, the newspaper said. People gathered at the facility to protest many times, and finally some broke into it. “A minority of people used the opportunity to stir things up and took the lead in causing an incident, damaging and smashing equipment,” it said, citing information from the city government. “Some unlawful elements surrounded and beat two police at the scene who were maintaining order ... One of them was seriously injured,” the report added. A government official was also seriously injured and two others were held by residents, the newspaper said. [Source: Ben Blanchard, Liu Zhen and Sally Huang, Reuters, Scientific American, September 1, 2009]

In July 2012, Shifang city in the southwestern province of Sichuan scrapped plans for a molybdenum and copper refinery after thousands of people protested the project's possible public health risks. AP reported: “Thousands of people — including high school students — concerned about pollution the plant would cause began to gather in front of the city government building and a public square and the protests turned bloody after riot police moved in. Public anger surged as Internet users circulated photos and videos of riot police using tear gas and batons to end the protests. Some Internet users said one protester had died. "People are very upset. How could the police beat them?" said a 15-year-old middle school student surnamed Liu who did not join the protest. “A man who answered the phone at Shifang No. 2 Hospital said more than 30 people — including police officers and protesters — were injured but that they were discharged after minor treatment and said no one had died. “In a public notice issued, the municipal government said a small group of protesters threw pots, bricks and stones at police officers and government officials. It said 27 people were taken away by police, six of whom were formally detained for overturning police vehicles or throwing objects. The other 21 were released. [Source: AP, July 3, 2012]

“The city government said it would delay the project after the protest and educate residents about the plan. The city's public security bureau earlier warned the public not to use the Internet or cellphones to organize more protests and asked those who had done so to turn themselves in within three days or face severe punishment. Shifang was badly hit in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake that killed nearly 90,000. City officials say the copper plant project is needed to help Shifang rebuild its economy. Liu said parents, classmates and teachers all objected to the project because of its environmental risks "It will make our home city a town of death," Liu said. “AFP reported: “Chinese authorities are vowing to inflict what they call "severe punishment" on organizers of the protest.

In October 2012 Associated Press reported: “People protesting against the building of a coal-fired power plant in a southern Chinese town threw bricks at police who fired volleys of teargas and detained dozens in the country's latest environmental dispute, residents say. At least 1,000 people in Yinggehai, on China's Hainan island, began several days of protests last week after construction resumed on the plant, which had been halted by earlier demonstrations. Dozens had been injured and many were detained by police, who have put the town under strict surveillance, residents said. Police and local officials declined to comment. "They fired teargas to disperse the crowds in the past few days," said a resident "We don't want a power plant here that will cause serious pollution," he said. Clashes between brick-wielding residents and police armed with batons broke out after officers detained some of the protesters and fired teargas canisters, said the 26-year-old man, who gave only his surname, Lin. He said authorities had taken some of the injured away from hospitals, making people afraid to go to them. Security officers had entered schools and homes, and were guarding local government offices and main roads, Lin said. [Source: Associated Press, October 22, 2012]

Environmental Riots in Zhejiang Leave One Woman Dead

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Protests in Xiamen in 2007
There have been a number of protests and riots in relatively wealthy Zhejiang Province over the affects of pollution on villagers. The industrial zone in the province that surrounds Shanghai is notorious for its polluting factories. In July 2005, thousands of villagers from the village of Jianxia in Mesishan County in Zhejiang Province took control of a battery factory they said was poisoning their children. A thousand workers were held hostage.

In July 2005, three days of rioting broke out in Xinchang in Zhejiang Province when 15,000 people gathered to protest pollution produced by the Jinxing pharmaceutical factory and demanded that the factory be moved. The protesters, undeterred by tear gas, fought with police, overturned police cars and threw stones. The riot were finally brought under control when dozens of buses arrived with 3,000 paramilitary police. The protests in Xinchang were sparked by the explosion of a ruptured vessel containing deadly chemicals that killed one worker and contaminated a river that provides irrigation water and drinking water for farmers downstream. The farmers had tried to complain directly to the company that runs the factory. When they showed up at a scheduled meeting, instead of meeting with company representatives they were beaten up by company goons. Later a mob returned and stormed the factory. The farmers in Xinchang had been angry about the drug plant for some time. They say chemicals from the plant have caused the yields of their fields to decline and made the residents weak and nauseous.

In April 2005, thousands of villagers rioted in Mangkantou village in Danyang city in Zhejiang Province over toxic chemicals pumped into streams and on farmland by local pesticides and chemicals plants. Two elderly women were killed, villagers said, when they were run over by police vehicles. Fifty police were injured in riots following the deaths of the two women. Ten police cars were overturned and rocks were hurled at police holed up in a high school.

The incident began at 4:30am one night when 3,000 police descended on a camp set outside the Zhuxi Industrial Park in Huaxui (Huashui) outside of Donyang, 120 miles south of Hangzhou, where about 200 elderly women were keeping a 24 hour vigil to protest waste produced by 13 chemical factories at the industrial park. Villagers had anticipated the police raid.

Fireworks were fired off when the police arrived and 20,000 villagers from villages near he industrial park arrived and surrounded the police. The sight of the police beating up the old women stirred the crowd into a frenzy and they began pelting the police with rocks. After a short time the police lines collapsed and the police made a run for it. There were reports that six policemen were killed and a chief had tendons in arms and legs severed. Later the police made a counter attack, using a wedge maneuver to scatter the protesters and get the upper hand.

Residents of the villages had been complaining for years about the Zhuxi Industrial Park producing foul-smelling chemicals that irritated their eyes, caused them to get sick, damaged their crops and seeped into their drinking and irrigation water. The chemicals were believed to be behind alarming increases in sickness, and babies stillborn or born with deformed limbs or learning disabilities. Villagers also complained that eating newly harvest rice made them sick to the stomachs and fumes closed the eyes of their children. The worst offender was a pesticide factory forced outside of Donyang City because of the foul odors it produced. In 2001, protestors broke into the factory and smashed some equipment. In March 2005, after years of getting nowhere with local officials, residents built a tent camp outside the industrial park to act as a blockade to the factories.

In January 2006 in Zhejiang Province, three villagers were sentenced to five years in prison for their involvement in the protests. Their efforts were not in vain. In the spring of 2006, the last of 13 factories that produced the pollution was closed. Word spread and gave local people confidence that could achieve concrete results if they worked together to fight local authorities.

Text Messages Shut Down a $1.6 Billion Chemical Plant

The construction of a $1.6 billion chemical factory in Xiamen was halted after citizens there launched a successful text messaging campaign. Widely-distributed messages used inflammatory language comparing the chemicals produced at the plant to nuclear bomb material and warned of leukemia and birth defects. The messages reached more than 1 million cell phones and reached nearly all of Xiamen’s 1.5 million residents through cell phone, word of mouth or messages painted on building walls.

Environmentalist posted the first messages on the Internet. In addition to raising fears about the chemicals themselves they also pointed out that the plant was built near a densely populated area and could damage the city’s tourism industry. As Internet sites were closed down, reports started showing up newspapers outside of Xiamen. Angry messages about the chemical factory were removed from the Internet but the text messages were so widely disseminated using the short message system (SMS) from so many sources at so many different times the government was helpless to do anything about it. One blogger wrote “SMS is a widely used communications method, more than the Internet. Only a certain amount of people use the Internet, but almost everyone has a cell phone.”

Chinese authorities have technology to monitor cell phone messages and track their sources. They they tried to block message in Xiamen but when people send out messages to their friends and family members and they in turn send messages to more people information spreads in exponential fashion and is difficult to stop. Once the text message campaign gained momentum it took on a life of its own. In early June 2007, demonstrations with 10,000 participants were held and Xiamen began getting nationwide coverage. Everyone was caught by surprise when the city announced construction of the chemical factory would be stopped. Many felt that was perhaps most significant about the protest was that people were not afraid to speak out even though they knew their messages could tracked.

In December 2007, a public hearing on the plant was held and public opinion was almost unanimously against it. The plant has not been officially canceled but there are no plans to resume construction anytime soon. In March 2008, thousands of people took to the streets in several towns on the Gulei Peninsula in Dongshan County in southern Fujian Province to protest a proposal to build the $1.6 billion chemical plant originality slated to be built in Xiaman in their backyard. The Gulei Peninsula is about 80 kilometers from Xiamen. The protests turned violent, with police opening fire on the protesters with tear gas. A student told AP, “It was chaos.” He described police beating protesters with batons and shields and protesters throwing rocks at the police. About a dozen people were injured and 20 were arrested. The protests continued even after security forces with automatic weapons showed up.

At first the residents of Donghsan County didn’t take much notice, but environmental activists began going door to door and handing out fliers. All of sudden people became concerned about the health threat and plummeting property values. Protesters staged a sit in to block traffic. By one estimate 10,000 people took part. A television announcement by the propaganda department that attempted to assure people that plant was safe and create jobs only made people more angry, Protests resumed the next day, and the police were called in. The protest reportedly turned violent after a woman got into an argument with a local official and the official slapped her. Protester then descended on a police station, demanding an apology and pelted police cars and motorcycles with rocks.

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Dalian protest in 2011

Protests Against Paraxylene

In January 2009, it was announced that chemical plant that was scheduled to be built in Xiamen would instead be built outside Zhangzhou, a 100 kilometers southwest of Xiamen. The decision was seen as a rare victory for those fighting pollution and government-supported development. The plant will produce paraxylene, a petrochemical used in the manufacture of polyester and cleaning agents. In their announcement, environmental officials said the $3.6 billion plant would be built about 50 miles from the center of Zhangzhou, which has a population of four million. As word of the proposed move circulated last year, some Zhangzhou residents staged sporadic protests, but they never gained much momentum. Local officials are eager for the plant and the economic activity it is expected to generate. China Daily suggested that the project would proceed without opposition and noted that 6 percent of the construction budget would be dedicated to environmental protection. A proposal for another paraxylene plant, outside Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, also were met by widespread protests. [Source: Andrew Jacobs New York Times, January 14, 2009]

In May 2013, AFP reported: “More than 200 demonstrators gathered in the city of Kunming to protest plans for a factory which will produce paraxylene (PX), a toxic petrochemical used to make fabrics, China's official Xinhua news agency reported. Around 1,000 people described as "onlookers" surrounded the protesters, some of whom wore face-masks and held banners, the report said. A "large number" of police were on the scene to "maintain order" and the area was cordoned off, captions said. Demonstrators engaged in shoving matches with police but there were no serious clashes, according to the website. Online Chinese text reports appeared to have been censored, with searches for "Kunming" and "PX" leading to messages reading: "The webpage you wanted to browse cannot be displayed for the time being." But Internet users overwhelmed China's Twitter-like weibo services with support for the protesters. "There is a riot in the mind of the people of Kunming who are strangled," wrote user "Director Wang Tingting". Another blogger, "Xi Xiaobudou", said: "Government and media, please do not lie -- we do not want the refinery to come to Kunming." Others called for an online petition to block the plant."I'm the 213,670th citizen to disagree with building the refinery in Kunming... everybody please forward the post and add a number," said "Optimistic V". According to the official news agency Xinhua, Kunming's mayor Li Wenrong has promised: "The government will call off the project if most of our citizens say no to it." [Source: AFP, May 5, 2013]

In April 2014, more than a thousand people took to the streets in Maoming in Guangdong province to protest at plans for a paraxylene (PX) project jointly run by the local government and Chinese state oil company Sinopec. The Guardian reported: Photos circulating on the Chinese social media platform, Weibo showed protesters holding banners marching through the streets of the city and lines of riot police. There were reports that the protests ended in violent clashes. A witness told the South China Morning Post that more than a thousand people took part in the protest and that clashes broke out between police and protesters. Photos circulated online of people lying on the ground with blood stained clothes. One photo showed a man in a lying on the ground in a pool of blood being attended to by medical personnel.” Afterwards, “The municipal government said that if the majority of residents object to it, the plant will not go ahead, according to Xinhua. "We are at a stage of disseminating information relating to the paraxylene project," a municipal government spokesperson was quoted by Xinhua. [Source: Jennifer Duggan, The Guardian, April 1, 2014]

Protest Over Chemical Plant in Dalian

In August 2011, thousands of protestors took to the streets in the northeast city of Dalian to demand the removal of the expensive new Fujia chemical factory, whose Pacific coast sea wall had been breached a week earlier in a typhoon. The plant makes paraxylene, a toxic chemical used to make polyester products. It can cause illness and, if concentrated, death. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere and Michael Wines, New York Times August 15, 2011]

Sharon Lafraniere and Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “By official estimates, 12,000 demonstrators marched in Dalian.” By other estimates, many more “protesters took part. “The mostly peaceful protest was one of the largest reported in nearly three years. It included the extraordinary scene of the city’s Communist Party secretary standing atop a car, pleading with demonstrators to go home and promising to close and move the $1.5 billion plant. Some responded by demanding a date.

China’s embrace of wireless communications “first cellphone text messages, then Internet chat rooms and Twitterlike microblogs “has fueled such protests, allowing the disaffected to share grievances in a way never before possible. Dalian’s protesters flooded microblogs with photos, reposting them as fast as censors could delete them. “Once it was happening, I could follow everything through the pictures,” said one person in Dalian, Ma Lei, who considered joining the demonstration but was deterred by the police. Public reaction took time to build after the Fujia sea wall was breached. But the protest showed clear signs of advance planning: demonstrators had large anti-Fujia banners, T-shirts, professionally printed placards and even face masks. Although the government said one group of demonstrators pelted police officers with plastic bottles of water and other objects, the protest appears to have been mostly peaceful. Some participants sang the national anthem.

If the commitment by local leaders to move the two-year-old plant is carried out, the scale of the protesters’ victory would set a benchmark. The plant, a joint venture between a state-owned chemical company and a local real estate giant, is said to contribute more than $300 million in taxes to the local government each year. The Chinese media reported that officials were so eager to open it that they did not wait for environmental approval, another instance in a pattern of officials’ elevating economic development over health and safety that worries many Chinese.

But the local government did not follow through with its promises. After visiting the PX plant in Dalian, which is owned by Dalian government-backed Dalian Fujia Petrochemical, in June 2012, Patti Waldmeir, Leslie Hook and Jamil Anderlini wrote in the Financial Times, “Wrkers, security guards and outside suppliers all said that far from shutting down production the plant had been expanded and was hiring new workers. One western executive of a big petrochemical company in China said the Dalian plant had not stopped production. [Source: Patti Waldmeir, Leslie Hook and Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times, October 29, 2012]

Scholars said the protest in Dalian, Sharon Lafraniere and Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times,spoke of a revolution of rising expectations in which Chinese citizens, growing more educated and wealthier, think their government should better protect their health, safety and other interests. “People are more aware of their rights, and they are demanding more rights and better protection of their interests,” said Yiyi Lu, an Asia scholar in Beijing with the research institute Chatham House. The government is more responsive, she said, but it is still “not reacting fast enough,” she said. “That is why there is growing discontent.” Some question whether China’s middle class is eager to assert itself. “The power of civil society is growing, but it is still very weak,” said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at Beijing Institute of Technology.

Dalian’s compromise also points to a paradox that Communist Party leaders face as they begin “pressed by China’s top leaders “to pay more attention to local grievances. “You can find many examples of the government trying to better meet people’s demands,” said Ms. Lu, of Chatham House. “But when you improve your service, that creates more demand.” In particular, she said, the slow move toward more government transparency, in areas like official expenses, has encouraged citizen watchdogs to point out waste and abuse, further hurting trust in government. Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a nonprofit Beijing group, said the Dalian case showed that officials should be open at the start. Better, he said, to get public input and genuine environmental assessments before approving major projects. “It is high time to open up the decision-making process.”

Ningbo Chemical Plant Protest in October 2012

In October 2012, more than a thousand people gathered in the eastern Chinese port city of Ningbo to protest against plans to expand a petrochemical plant. The protesters, watched over by police, gathered in a central shopping street in Ningbo, wearing masks and giving out pamphlets denouncing the expansion of the plant by a subsidiary of China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation in the district of Zhenhai. The day before protesters overturned a police car and attacked the police. PX...Get out of Ningbo!" read one placard, in a reference to the chemical paraxylene, which the protesters said was a carcinogen. On Weibo, discussion of the protests was not blocked but some users in Ningbo reported difficulty in uploading photographs. The Ningbo Municipal Public Security Bureau Zhenhai branch released a statement urging protesters to express their demands in a lawful manner. [Source: Reuters, October 27, 2012]

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “The protests, which began last week when farmers blocked a road near the refinery, grew over the weekend as thousands of students and middle-class residents converged on a downtown square carrying handmade banners and wearing surgical masks painted with skull and bones. The demonstrations turned violent when riot police fired tear gas and began to beat and drag away protesters. At one point, according to people who were there, marchers tossed bricks and bottles at the police. At least 100 people were detained, according to some estimates, although most were later released. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 28, 2012 +++]

“The project, an $8.8 billion expansion of a refinery owned by the state-run behemoth Sinopec, was eagerly backed by the local government, which has been promoting a vast industrial zone outside Ningbo, a city of 3.4 million people in Zhejiang Province. Residents were particularly unnerved by one major component of the project: the production of paraxylene, a toxic petrochemical known as PX that is a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of polyester, paints and plastic bottles.

Officials in Ningbo promised to halt the expansion of a petrochemical plant. Although local officials were undoubtedly alarmed by the size and ferocity of the protests, their decision to bend so quickly was also probably influenced by the coming series of meetings that will determine China’s next generation of leaders. The ruling Communist Party, always eager to keep a lid on public discontent, is especially nervous about any disruptions that might mar the 18th Party Congress, which was set to begin on Nov. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 28, 2012 +++]

“Ma Jun, an environmental activist in Beijing, applauded the government’s sudden about-face but said he hoped the weekend of unrest would convince Chinese leaders that soliciting public opinion on industrial development is in their best interest, especially given how much money is wasted when such projects are canceled midway. “We’ve seen the same pattern over and over again,” said Mr. Ma, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Ignoring public concerns leads to confrontation. We can’t resolve all our environmental issues through street action. The cost is just too high.” +++

Protests in China Stop Trash Incinerators and Nuclear Plants

In September 2014, residents in a southern Chinese town in Guangdong province's Boluo county, protested for two days against a proposed garbage incinerator. Thousands were involved in the demonstrations and there were clashes with police. Associated Press reported: “Hundreds of people gathered on a long street in front of the offices of the government in with anti-riot police standing by, three residents said. One said he was among protesters who marched about 2 kilometers (about a mile) to the county government office. At its peak, he estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people took part and he saw police with shields and batons take away three people who had thrown water bottles at them. At the county offices, an official came out with a loudspeaker to tell the crowds that the government had not yet decided on a location for the incinerator, he said adding that crowds had begun to disperse. "We have expressed our opinion." [Source: Louise Watts, Associated Press, September 14, 2014]

In May 2014, protesters in Yuhang, close to the tourist city of Hangzhou in east China clashed with police over waste incinerator plan. Reuters reported: “Protesters clashed with police at a rally against plans to build a huge waste incinerator that residents fear will be harmful to their health and add to pollution. Two of the protesters told Reuters that the demonstrations, which have lasted for more than two weeks, turned violent with hundreds of police descending onto the streets of Yuhang. "There have certainly been injuries," one of the protesters, Wu Yunfeng, said. "The police have closed down the roads into Yuhang and locked the site down." Another protestersaid several police cars had been overturned. [Source: Reuters, May 10, 2014]

“Pictures on Weibo showed police fighting with protesters and at least two protesters with blood streaming down their faces. Another picture showed several hundred people surrounding a large group of police. "We don't want our children and grandchildren to get cancer. Give us back our beautiful home," read one letter of protest carried on Weibo. The official Hangzhou Daily newspaper defended the construction of the incinerator, saying the technology it would use was safe and up to standard.

China detained 60 people for their role in a violent demonstration that prompted officials to promise to suspend construction of a waste incinerator, local police said. AFP reported: "Fifty-three suspects were criminally detained in accordance with the law," city police said on their official microblog account. Eleven people had turned themselves in, it added, although they may have been included in the total 53. Their charges included disrupting public order, obstructing public business and "picking fights and provoking trouble". Separately, it said, "Hangzhou police put seven people under administrative detention for spreading rumours online," who would be held for five to 10 days each.

In August 2016, work was stopped on $15 billion nuclear waste project in Lianyungang — a coastal city about 500 kilometers north of Shanghai — after protests. Reuters: The project, to be run by the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) in collaboration with France's Areva , was due to start construction in 2020 and scheduled to be completed by 2030. "The Lianyungang Municipal People's Government has decided to suspend site selection and preliminary work on the nuclear recycling project," the local government said. Lianyungang, in the province of Jiangsu, is the location of the Tianwan nuclear project, which currently consists of two Russian-designed reactors. Two more units are now under construction and there are plans to expand further. In 2013, residents in the city of Heshan in Guangdong province took to the streets to protest against a uranium processing plant scheduled to be built in the city. The project was eventually cancelled.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, China Digital Times blogger Jessica

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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