China Pollution

Ningbo’s people power halts petrochemical plant expansion – for now

(November 2, 2012) The power of protest in China continues to gain momentum as yet another show of strength in numbers by protesters in Ningbo, an affluent port city of 3.4 million people, has halted a plan to expand petrochemical production in nearby Zhenhai.

by Lisa Peryman for Probe International

Described as China’s burgeoning “not in my backyard” movement, projects threatening human health and the environment are the most common motif of China’s current surge in public protest, enabled considerably by the octopus-effect of social media to mobilize and disseminate ideas. The Ningbo uprising in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, represents the most recent example of civil unrest in a country notoriously concerned with social control.

According to various news reports, the week-long Ningbo mobilization began in the coastal district of Zhenhai, 15.5 kilometers from the city centre, in protest against plans for an $8.9-billion expansion of a petrochemical factory located in the area, run by a subsidiary of state-owned oil and gas giant Sinopec.

Observers say that what began as a large but relatively peaceful public rally in Ningbo on Saturday, Oct. 27, erupted into violence when riot police fired tear gas to dispel chanting crowds and arrest participants. It is estimated between a dozen and 100 people have been arrested. At least 10 people are said to have been injured and several media reports state one person is rumoured to have been beaten to death.

Moves to reign in protesters only intensified public feeling, already buoyed by online support from other parts of Zhejiang and nearby provinces, as well as Chinese celebrities. One woman told CTV News, police officers had made her sign a guarantee promising she would not participate in any more protests; she returned the next day to demonstrate.

“They won’t even let us sing the national anthem,” she said. “They kept asking me who the leader of the protests was and I said that this is all voluntary. We have no leader.”

Below: China’s netizens posted up-to-the-minute protest coverage, as it unfolded. The following picture gallery features photographs captured and shared by Sino Weibo users: images 1-4 show riot police gathering and marching towards the centre of protest; protesters wearing surgical masks and holding signs that read “I love Ningbo”; riot police preventing a young man from taking pictures; protesters detained in a police bus, and the last image, taken by Ng Han Guan for the Associated Press news agency, features protesters and a skull-emblazoned banner outside the offices of the municipal government on Sunday, Oct. 28. Netizens interviewed by journalists report feeling empowered by the show of rebellion in Ningbo but analysts warn the back down by authorities may prove temporary.

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Although reputedly eager in their support of the proposal to ramp up annual output at the Zhenhai facility to an estimated 15 million tons of refined oil and 1.2 million tons of ethylene, the government of Ningbo quickly capitulated to public demand and announced late Sunday to suspend the expansion. They also pledged the potentially lethal chemical, paraxylene (PX) commonly used to make plastics, paints and polyester and slated for manufacture in the portion of the factory to be expanded would be dropped from the plant’s production plans, even vowing: “no (PX) paraxylene project would be allowed in this city”.

Alarmed residents feared production of PX, and growth of the facility in general, would further jeopardize their health in relation to growing pollution and health concerns attached to Zhenhai’s rapidly developing industrial zone, which they believe is responsible for a rise in cases of cancer and other illnesses.

But opinion on the ground remained largely unmoved by the decision to suspend the expansion. Many saw it as a political move to maintain stability in the lead-up to the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress in early November, and the debut of China’s new generation of political leaders.

As one protester told the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper: “We can only depend on ourselves now. We can’t count on the government to think about us.”

The Wall Street Journal writes the City’s apparent back down may merely signal yet another form of social control:

Environmental protests are potentially less volatile than other forms of unrest in China, in part because residents’ concerns are locally focused. Recent cases have shown that when local leaders are willing to make concessions, social order is quickly restored.

Reports vary as to whether the suspension promised by the government of Ningbo is permanent or temporary, pending review.

The Toronto Star describes the proposed expansion as ‘sort of cancelled’, pointing to past so-called victories in halting or closing PX plants in Xiamen and Dalian as warning signs for Ningbo. It reports a petrochemical facility proposed for Xiamen simply became a problem somewhere else when it was shunted onto Zhangzhou, a rural neighbour. In Dalian, months after the government promised to move a typhoon-damaged PX plant, the operation is back up and running in the same location.

Governments, meanwhile, are not alone in their efforts to placate protesters. Feisty and informed locals also present an issue for investors, says the Star:

Duncan Innes-Ker, senior China analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, says the public’s rising environmental awareness is forcing changes to the way companies handle large scale projects.

“In the past,” said Innes-Ker, “you really had to manage local government officials, and once you’d managed that you pretty much were home and dry. Nowadays, you really have to manage the local population as well.”

Local populations represent an increasingly difficult problem in urban areas where more affluent communities are challenging the growth at-all-cost development trajectory that has carried China forward for decades.

An Associated Press agency report notes that the Ningbo, Xiamen and Dalian protests all of which produced swift concessions from officials represent prosperous areas with large tech-savvy, middle-class communities; a class with clout increasingly determined to ensure continued prosperity does not come at the expense of their health or their local environment.

While the country’s “authoritarian government is scared of middle-class rebellion,” writes AP, its recent mood of apparent acquiescence only stretches to appeasing protest demands that “are limited and not openly political”.

A mobilized middle-class nevertheless could pose a potential threat to China’s communist system of government down the road. As AP observes:

The protests underscore the challenge the incoming leaders face in governing an increasingly wealthy — and wired — population who are growing more assertive about issues they care about. Democratic movements in places such as South Korea and Taiwan started with the middle class, and in Taiwan’s case environmental issues featured prominently.

Further Reading:

Protesters win environmental battle in China

Activist Dai Qing: How China limits change, and stores discontent

Another public uprising forces hand of government

Shifang uprising halts controversial copper plant proposal

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