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A Large Majority of Chinese Vow to Take On Pollution With Protest

As some demonstrators were hauled away by uniformed and plainclothes police, some shouted, "Police officers are Kunming residents too! Police officers drink Kunming water too!"
Photo from a protest in Kunming, May 16, 2013, via Weibo

It should now come as no surprise that people in China, like people pretty much anywhere, get mad as hell about industrial pollution in their backyards, seeping into their water, obscuring their skies. What's different this time around is that increasingly they are not going to take it anymore.

The numbers from a survey released earlier this month by the Public Opinion Research Center at Shanghai Jiao Tong University bear this out. According to the study, up to 80% of citizens believe that environmental protection should be a higher priority than economic development. And 78% of those surveyed (3,400 people from 34 cities) said that they will participate in protests if pollution facilities are built near their homes—even though public protest is generally outlawed by the authorities.


(As of publication, a May 9 article about this study on the website of state-run English-language China Daily loads only intermittently; a cached version is here.)

Over the past decade, pollution has become a flashpoint for popular protest in China, in part because ecology is seen as an apolitical issue, which makes it more tolerable to government censors, and in part because citizens have become better informed about the risks to their health, their farms, and their newly-rented or purchased homes. (Land seizures by government officials have also stirred up public rancor, but not like the environment has.)

New digital tools, and SMS and Weibo in particular, have been instrumental in organizing opposition to large industrial projects. At a meeting last year of the standing committee of the National People's Congress, Yang Chaofei, vice chairman of the Chinese Society of Environmental Sciences, told officials that between 1996 and 2011, the number of environmental 'mass incidents' grew an average of 29% every year. And between 2010 and 2011, the number of environmental protests rose by 120%.

Top: a protester being carried away by plainclothes policemen; a demonstrator's sign. Via Weibo and South China Morning Post

While these findings are being borne out in real time, everyday, in small gatherings across the country, few recent incidents have garnered as much attention as the recent protests in the city of Kunming, the famously laid-back capital of Yunnan province. An initial protest on May 4th, the anniversary of the 1989 student movement, brought residents onto the streets of the sun-kissed southwestern city to fight plans for two nearby petrochemical factories: a controversial petroleum refinery and a related chemical plant producing paraxylene, or PX—a chemical used for making fabrics and plastic bottles, and a suspected carcinogen.

What makes the Yunnan protest so noteworthy is its scale and its timing, just as the realization is dawning on officials and citizens alike that public protest can be effective. Since 2007, all previous protests against PX plants— in the cities of Xiamen, Dalian and Ningbo— ended with local governments agreeing to either cancel or relocate the projects.


Oftentimes, these relocations focus on the poorer, interior parts of China, where citizens are thought to be less likely to revolt. An abundance of cheaper labor and lower political consciousness helps explain why large manufacturers like Foxconn are also rapidly expanding in China's western provinces.

Map by the New York Times, 2012

"[Officials and factory owners] make the false assumption that people living in or close to the poverty line will accept almost any kind of work, put up with the worst kind of environmental and health conditions," Ralph Litzinger, an anthropologist based at Duke University, told Dissent recently. "I think this is a highly suspect assumption. I suspect more and more industrial-related environmental protests will occur in the coming years in the western provinces of China, as the industrial manufacturing and chemical processing base is moved to the interior of the country."

In July, high school students in Shifang, in the western province of Sichuan, researched the possible deadly effects of a proposed molybdenum copper plant, then used social media like Weibo and WeChat to spread what they'd learned. Protests ensued, Photoshopped memes about aggressive police officers spread like wildfire across Weibo, and, after violent encounters between demonstrators and police, the project was reportedly cancelled.

The protests in Shifang, July 2012. Photo via Weibo

Though they are rarely used, legal remedies offer citizens another option for stopping polluters. Last year in Yunnan, the NGO Friends of Nature brought a lawsuit against a local chemical company for discharging 200,000 tons of waste into the Pearl River. While the case hasn't gone to trial yet, it has already set a precedent as the first time a grassroots group has succeeded in bringing a case against a polluter in China.

But court action or public consultation is still rare. Despite a 2012 law requiring public impact assessments for industrial projects, most of the time, local officials address environmental crises as they arise, rather than implement better methods for civic decision-making before new industrial projects begin, an approach that Elizabeth Economy points out "may contribute to far greater political challenges for the ruling government."


The recent torrent of civic excitement around the environment (or what some dismiss as mere NIMBYism) helps explain why when residents of Kunming planned a second protest last week, local officials were waiting to preempt them. Beforehand the city's mayor Li Wenrong had offered to hold town hall meetings in July, when feasibility studies for the plants are scheduled to be completed. He also called a press conference on May 10 and held two discussion sessions with small groups of residents, citing the plant's "strategic importance" for the region's economic development. The plants lie at the end of a massive natural gas pipeline, set to start operating this month, that links a port in Myanmar's Rakhine State with the Yunnan capital.

Video by Al Jazeera

But by the time the second protest arrived on May 16th, a number of activists had already been invited to "drink tea" with police, sent threatening text messages, or been instructed to attend "study sessions" about the plant. The same day, the national government released [a handy advisory](http:// ) to the editors of the country's news websites:

State Internet Information Office: All websites are asked to remove text, images, and video related to the protest of over 1,000 people in Kunming city center against the Anning PX construction plan. Interactive platforms must strictly monitor activity.

That didn't disuade the protesters, hundreds of whom had gathered in the morning to march toward the city center. Despite thousands of police, the crowd would not be stopped. In one of the city's busiest intersections, with thousands of police present, mayor Li emerged for an unusual, impromptu face-to-face dialogue with citizens; for fifteen minutes he sought to quell their concerns and insisted they leave their contact information so that a public meeting could be organized. He promised to set up his own Weibo account so that he could take public critciisms, and he denied that any protesters had been detained.


tech savvy #Kunming protesters open WIFI networks for sharing. 昆明抗议PX,开放无线网络供抗议者使用。

— 周锋锁 Fengsuo Zhou (@ZhouFengSuo) May 16, 2013

"I don't think the police dare to detain people, and I expect the refinery to be eventually called off, because maintaining social stability is the government's priority now," one protester told the South China Morning Post. As some demonstrators were hauled away by uniformed and plainclothes police, some shouted, "Police officers are Kunming residents too! Police officers drink Kunming water too!"

"The people of Kunming are waking up now," one man told the Post, when asked why he had never protested in public before. That consciousness is hard to dismiss in far-away Beijing, where top officials have worried about aloud about public unrest—the seeds of tumult throughout Chinese history—and insisted on more stringent control of corrupt local politicians and on a more ecological approach to development, at least on paper. "We should adopt effective measures to prevent and control pollution," former premier Wen Jiabao said recently, "and change the way we work and live."

At around 3pm local time on Thursday, as protests in Kunming reached their fever pitch, "Kunming" was the third most discussed topic on Weibo. By evening, after the police had dispersed demonstrators, posts mentioning the protest had vanished.

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