Chemical reaction

Landmark protests on Sunday see plant closed

Chemical reaction

Defiant in Dalian

Television cameras were busy last week showing scenes of people taking to the streets. In most cases the images were of rioters and looters causing havoc in London and other English cities. But in Dalian, thousands also turned out at the weekend, although in more peaceful style. They were protesting about a toxic spill at a petrochemical plant near the north China city.

On Sunday morning crowds of residents converged on People’s Square, outside the main offices of the city government. Their banners said “Give me back my beautiful home” and “Say no to PX”, and their numbers escalated throughout the day. A police officer cited by Netease estimated there were 10,000 protestors but the South China Morning Post quotes one local onlooker who reckoned as many as 50,000 turned out.

They were roused to action after a typhoon damaged the Fujia Chemical Plant, threatening to inundate it with sea water. The plant makes paraxylene (called PX by locals), a toxic chemical used in paints and plastics. Residents were worried since the city of six million is downwind of the suspected spill.

By late afternoon the local government was clearly worried too and called an emergency meeting. According to Xinhua, the city’s two most senior officials – Party Secretary Tang Jun and Mayor Li Wancai – then addressed the crowd and promised the plant would be shut down and relocated elsewhere.

The chemical facility had been opened in 2009 on an area of reclaimed land known as the Dagushan Peninsula near Dalian (an industrial area that citizens have nicknamed ‘the Powderkeg’, as it now houses 38 petrochemical enterprises). It is partly owned by state firm Dahua, but the major stake is held by Fujia Group, which newspaper CBN describes as one of Dalian’s top private sector companies.

Local approvals for the project were given in 2005, but the newspaper says residents feel they were kept in the dark and that construction was rushed through by officials keen to promote GDP growth.

CBN notes that former Dalian Mayor Xia Deren (now Liaoning’s Deputy Party Secretary) visited the plant in 2008 and said “the municipal government and relevant departments must make every effort to ensure the project’s success.”

The 21CN Business Herald writes that the paraxylene plant is emblematic of a broader problem in China: “the undesirable phenomenon that encourages local officials to put too much emphasis on economic growth rather than public safety.”

Dalian is regularly named as China’s most livable city, which perhaps explains why residents were so energised by the threat from the plant. International media has also been asking if the protest marks a new chapter in civic activism. The crowd sang the national anthem (to demonstrate they were not a political threat) and left the square notably free of litter. There were reports of a spirit of solidarity: street vendors gave away bottled water to show common cause with the demonstrators.

The Financial Times was one of the international newspapers to describe it as a landmark moment: “Environmental activists say if Dalian officials follow through on their promises it will be the first time a large, operational petrochemical plant is relocated in China because of public concerns.”

Li Chengpeng, whose weibo is followed by 3.54 million people, also declared it a victory for the citizens of Dalian. As in a number of recent cases, the Sina Weibo messaging service seems to have been a key factor in organising the protest.

By the middle of the week there was confusion on the plant’s closure. Reuters was reporting that bosses had ignored the directive to shut down and that customers from Iran and Papua New Guinea had orders that would be filled by the end of the month. China Daily then clarified that operations would be shuttered but safety concerns meant that work could not be halted immediately. The plant, one of China’s largest PX producers, contributes Rmb2 billion ($311 million) to the local government in taxes every year, says Xinhua.

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