Thousands of people gathered in front of the municipal government office in China’s northeastern port city Dalian on Sunday to demand the relocation of a nearby petrochemical plant after a violent storm sparked fears of a toxic spill.
REUTERS - Thousands of people demonstrated in northeastern China on Sunday, demanding the relocation of a petrochemical plant at the centre of a toxic spill scare, according to eyewitness accounts and state media.
Demonstrators in the port city of Dalian, in Liaoning province, faced down a wall of police in riot gear in front of the municipal government office and minor scuffles broke out, although there was no report of injuries, state news agency Xinhua said.
State media said last Monday that residents in Dalian were forced to flee when a storm battering the northeast Chinese coast whipped up waves that burst through a dyke protecting the Fujia plant, which makes paraxylene (PX), a toxic petrochemical used in polyester.
Although authorities repaired the dyke and insisted that no spills were detected, the incident sparked panic that PX could have been released, fuelling resentment against the project. Calls on popular microblogging site Weibo and QQ, an instant messaging system, urged residents to protest on Sunday.
Protesters chanted “Fujia, get out!,” Xinhua said, adding that there was no sign of the protest dispersing soon.
The outpouring of public anger is emblematic of the rising discontent facing Chinese leaders, which are obsessed with maintaining stability and are struggling to balance growth with growing public anger over pollution and environmental threats.
In a rare concession, Dalian’s Communist Party chief Tang Jun and mayor Li Wancai on Sunday “tried to appease the crowd by promising to move the polluting project out of the city”, Xinhua said.
Xinhua reported that protesters said the promise was welcome, but added that they wanted a clear timetable for moving the plant. Some of the protesters have refused to move until a timetable is established, Xinhua said.
Protesters including children marched holding banners that declared: “I love Dalian and reject poison”, “return me my home and garden, get out PX, protect Dalian”, and “Return my future generations’ beautiful home”, according to eyewitness accounts.
Six men stood on top of a police van in front of the government building on People’s Square. Photographs on Weibo showed a person in a gas mask wearing a t-shirt that said: “Brother wants to live a few more years”. Xinhua said the main road that passes near the square was blocked off.
“A poster was put on the Internet yesterday calling people to ‘stroll’ on Sunday morning starting from 10 a.m. on the People’s Square, near which the Dalian government is located,” a resident in Dalian, who declined to be named, told Reuters by telephone.
“We know that the typhoon caused some leak of poisonous chemicals from the PX project and we are all worrying about it, because it is a threat to our life,” the resident said. “We hope that such a ‘stroll’ may push the government to do something as soon as possible to dispel our worries.”
Group strolls have become one way for Chinese people to show discontent with the government.
Calls to the Dalian government went unanswered.
Environmental worries have stoked calls for expanded rights for citizens in the one-party state, but this protest has extended it to calls for more government accountability, highlighting the mistrust that Dalian residents have in its leaders.
According to Southern Metropolis News, the Fujia plant started full-scale production in June 2009, but it did not get the mandatory environmental approval from the Liaoning environmental protection bureau until April last year.
A photograph on Weibo showed crowds sitting in front of the government building, with some people holding a banner that said “stamp out corruption”.
Chinese authorities, which are quick to suppress dissent from spreading, blocked searches on Weibo for “PX”, “Dalian”, and “Dalian protests”. Search results for these terms showed pages that said “according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results are not displayed”.
A serious chemical leakage would be a fresh headache for Liaoning, which recently suffered an oil spill from two offshore platforms. Pollutants from that spill have been found spreading to beaches, and been blamed for losses to tourism and aquatic farming businesses, Xinhua reported in July.
China’s leaders have vowed to create a more “harmonious society” with cleaner air and water, even at the cost of slower economic growth.
But this dispute pits citizens against local officials whose priority often remains attracting fresh investment and revenue.
The Xiamen authorities in southern Fujian province were forced to scrap a similar PX project in 2008 after thousands of people in the city took to the streets.
The chemical PX can cause eye, nose or throat irritation and chronic exposure may result in death.