[Marxism] Protests Over Chemical Plant Force Chinese Officials to Back Down

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 29 09:29:45 MDT 2012

NY Times October 28, 2012
Protests Over Chemical Plant Force Chinese Officials to Back Down

BEIJING — Officials in the coastal city of Ningbo, China, promised on 
Sunday night to halt the expansion of a petrochemical plant after 
thousands of demonstrators clashed with the police during three days of 
protests that spotlighted the public’s mounting discontent with 
industrial pollution.

The protests, which followed similar demonstrations in other cities in 
the past year, point to the increasing willingness of the Chinese to 
take to the streets despite the perils of openly challenging the 
country’s authoritarian government.

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 is set to 
begin on Nov. 8 in the capital and will serve to ratify the first change 
of leadership in a decade.

But Ningbo residents reached by phone said they were skeptical of the 
government’s sudden change of heart. “The announcement is just a way to 
ease tensions,” said Yu Xiaoming, a critic of the plant who took part in 
negotiations with the authorities on Sunday.

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.

On Saturday, 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.

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. 
Many residents contend that the concentration of polluting factories in 
the Ningbo Chemical Industrial Zone has led to a surge in cancer and 
other illnesses.

While mass demonstrations against mining operations, copper smelters and 
trash incinerators have disrupted Chinese cities in recent years, the 
construction of paraxylene plants has been especially controversial. In 
2007, protesters in the coastal city of Xiamen, in Fujian Province, 
successfully forced the relocation of a PX plant that had been planned 
just 10 miles from downtown. Last August, officials in Dalian, in 
northeast China, announced that they would shut down a PX plant there 
after thousands of residents angrily confronted the riot police. That 
factory is still operating.

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.”

Despite the best efforts of government censors, many of the protests 
have been fueled by social media. In Ningbo, residents held aloft 
smartphones and computer tablets and flooded microblog sites with images 
and vivid descriptions of the running battles with the police. The 
Chinese news media carried no reports of the protests.

In recent days, the district government of Zhenhai, which includes 
Ningbo, one of China’s most affluent cities, tried to reassure 
residents, saying the plant would include the latest pollution-control 
technologies. Officials also said they had spent nearly $1 billion to 
relocate 9,800 households away from the refinery site.

In a brief statement posted on the government’s Web site on Sunday, 
officials said they decided to cancel the PX plant after consulting with 
investors. They also pledged to conduct “scientific verifications” on 
other elements of the project, although they provided no further detail.

The announcement appears to have done little to mollify popular anger. 
According to The Associated Press, an official who read the statement 
through a loudspeaker on Sunday evening was drowned out by the crowd, 
which then called on the mayor to resign and demanded the release of 
protesters who had been detained.

Later in the evening, several people posting on Sina Weibo, a popular 
microblog service, said the police were arresting students at Ningbo 
University and protesters on the street who had refused to disperse. The 
accounts could not be verified.

Patrick Zuo contributed research.

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