Photo by MLDD.
hen I was lined up waiting to cross the Macao border into China for the first time, I was honestly scared. From everything I’d read about the police and the central government in the papers, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that they were going to just arbitrarily arrest me, jail me, and execute me. I was being paranoid, I guess, because I finally got through immigration without incident and took my first step into the mainland.
As time went on I began to realize that it was actually OK to criticize the government in public here, that emails and instant messages were most likely not being monitored. Even as an artist, you can get around censorship somehow because the Chinese art market is soaring and the government is proud to finally have a valid cultural export again. Usually, if you mind your own business and not theirs, daily life is pretty much free. Sometimes, however, crossing paths with the government is unavoidable. That’s when you find out just how serious it can be.
I moved to a seaside city called Xiamen, which was formerly known as Amoy, at the beginning of this year because it is rated as one of the top three most scenic and comfortable places to live in China. I think it’s more likely that this is one of the top three “livable” places left due to the country’s recent development, which has left the environment apocalyptically devastated.
This past March, information began leaking out that a Taiwanese-run chemical plant was secretly being constructed in Xiamen. According to many scientists, the chemical Paraxylene (PX), which the plant would be producing, is a highly polluting and carcinogenic petrochemical that would damage the surrounding environment as well as increase the chance of fetal abnormality during pregnancy. Not a good thing. In addition, according to text messages that were being forwarded from person to person around the city, if there was an accident at the factory, it would be like “dropping an atomic bomb on Xiamen Island.” In the past, the company had plans to build a factory in Taiwan but was rejected by their own government because it was deemed too harmful and unsafe. Apparently though, it’s OK for China even though the plant is being built less than a mile from the nearest residential area and only four miles away from downtown Xiamen. According to international standards, PX manufacturing should be kept at least 62 miles from any major urban settlement.
n May, most of the residents of Xiamen, myself included, started hearing about an illegal demonstration that was planned to take place on June 1. The PX project was government-approved so, in their eyes, if you oppose PX, then you oppose the government too. People started avidly discussing the situation using blogs, emails, instant messenger, BBS, and text messages while the government’s internet police did its best to block, ban, and monitor anything containing the two letters PX. Seriously. For a couple of days, a Chinese acquaintance of mine named Zhezi, a college student and clothing designer, went around spraying graffiti that read, “I Love Xiamen. Everyone is an island. Everyone is Xiamen. Anti-PX.” Around the same time, he posted photos of an Anti-PX t-shirt that he had designed and was planning to sell on his blog. “The next day six men came to my dorm room,” Zhezi told me. “Some of them were from China’s Ministry of State Security, some were from the Department of Urban Construction, and some were part of the university’s security department. They confiscated my t-shirts and warned me not to attend the protest if I still wanted to graduate this year.”
As June 1 approached, the government’s fear of a mass demonstration grew. Word on the street spread that the police, armed guards, and the military would be deployed and that the government would fire any of their officials and employees as well as any university and school teachers who joined in the march. Furthermore, any students who were caught attending were threatened with expulsion. The government defended itself by saying that it was not being entirely unreasonable because they were allotting a special area in the municipal government’s parking lot where a legal demonstration could be held. There was just one little catch: Demonstrators were going to be expected to line up, get their photos taken, and have their personal information recorded by officials before they could start demonstrating. Then on May 30, a day before the rally, the government announced that construction on the billion-dollar petrochemical plant would be temporarily put on hold. Some believed it was just a ploy to pacify the people but, according to state media, nearly 1 million text messages were sent to the government urging them to abort the project. But even after the government announcement, the demonstration was not canceled.