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Why Police Brutality Won't Stop Environmentalists in China

Around 1,000 activists gathered in southwest China to protest against the proposed construction of a petrochemical plant.

by Jamie Fullerton
Apr 12 2014, 12:48pm

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This article originally appeared on VICE Australia

On Sunday, March 30, around 1,000 activists gathered in Maoming, a city in southwest China, to protest against the proposed construction of a petrochemical plant. The fact that someone wants to build a petrochemical plant in the middle of a city is arguably enough justification to protest on its own, but those who oppose the plans are particularly worried about the paraxylene (PX)—a pollutant that can damage abdominal organs and the nervous system if inhaled or absorbed through skin—the plant would manufacture.

Although mass protests are still rare in China, where it's illegal to stage a protest without an official permit, the news of this particular demonstration wasn't all that surprising, as there have been a number of environmental protests in recent years. In 2011, one in Dalian, in the Liaoning province, prompted the relocation of a PX plant. Then, in 2012, a plan to build a pipeline that would funnel industrial waste into the sea next to the town of Qidong was scrapped after protesters stormed government offices and overturned cars.

Police have, bar a few exceptions, been tolerant of environmental protests. However, that all changed in Maoming. Pictures of baton-wielding cops chasing members of the public, people lying in pools of blood, and burning debris blocking roads flooded Chinese social media channels on the day of the demonstration, and were quickly deleted by the authorities.

The pictures—grabbed and posted on various blogs, and picked up by international media—remain unverified. But one eyewitness who wasn't directly involved in the protest told me: “I saw the police hitting people with sticks. They used tear gas close to me. I also saw people burning and smashing cars; there were wrecks of cars and police boxes. The windows of the municipal government building was smashed. I could hear the shouting and bombing sound till three o’clock in the morning.”

Police beating protesters with batons in Maoming

Protesters claimed that many among them had been injured, and that up to eight were killed. However, none of the supposed deceased have been named, no family members have spoken to the media, and the Maoming People’s Government sent a letter to residents denying that anyone had died in the incident (that said, the Chinese authorities aren't exactly known for their transparency).

Defending the police action, they wrote: “In the afternoon a small number of people blocked traffic on the road, then gradually dispersed. However, after 10:30 PM, a small number of troublemakers riding motorbikes started to vandalize public facilities by throwing rocks and plastic bottles. The Public Security Bureau acted swiftly and decisively, effectively restoring order to the scene. No one was killed in the incident.”

The cops may well have been reacting to provocation, but their alleged brutality represents a chilling snap from a stance of edgy tolerance to something more violent.

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I spoke to Dr. Willy Lam, who is a professor of China studies at Akita International University in Japan, and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He said that, as environmental protests have become a trend in China, authorities might have used the recent demonstration in Maoming to set a violent example for anyone thinking about leading a protest in the future.

“The fact that the authorities seemed to be behaving themselves more recently has led to people becoming less fearful,” he said. “So many people are asking why, this time, the police seemed to be using draconian tactics. The authorities may feel this [environmental protesting] is becoming a trend, so if they don’t act tough it may encourage more people to protest. It’s a reasonable conclusion that they want to set an example, to scare other would-be demonstrators.”

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As well as chasing demonstrators around with sticks in Maoming, authorities have also been trying to poison the roots of protest before the cops can even get within a nightstick's length of protesters. Recognizing that many activists tend to be young and well educated, the local government has allegedly been spreading material through schools to discourage dissent around the building of the petrochemical plant.

One Maoming resident, who has recently been teaching privately, told me, “I’ve been teaching a middle-school student. He told me that the school forced him to sign an agreement to prevent [students] from taking part in demonstrations [against the plant]."

The unverified document that the teacher was referring to has been making the rounds on Chinese social media. "To make Maoming a world-class chemical industrial base, the paraxylene projects should be actively and steadfastly promoted, so as to help develop our city and preserve our social stability," it reads. By signing it, people agree to "never participate in any activities that go against or hinder the construction of the project."

The municipal government has claimed that if the majority of Maoming residents object to their PX plant, they won’t build it. But seeing as they’re supposedly instilling a culture of fear around opposing the plan, and making people agree in writing not to oppose it, it seems pretty likely that their minds are already made up.

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President Xi Jinping’s government might be trying to dissuade people from ruining their plans for industrial expansion, but few think the anti-protest campaign will be successful in the long run. There are a number of other environmental issues worrying the Chinese besides PX plants, most obviously the lung-blackening levels of smog in the country's major cities. So protests are likely to eventually gear up accordingly, tear gas or no tear gas.

I spoke to Liu Jianqiang, a former investigative journalist who edits the website and has covered PX plants extensively. “Protests will continue to increase because China's environmental crises will get more serious in the future,” he said. “Do people feel they are able to protest more? Yes, because they are encouraged by the successes of previous protests. The local governments and companies have never learned from previous PX protests. They have blind faith that their own powers are stronger than the public's will.”

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Dr. Willy Lam agreed. “This resumption of tough tactics will not stop the people from protesting. There is also economic interest involved, as well as health,” he said. “If there’s a big PX factory in a neighborhood, the house prices will drop. That is a direct impact on people’s economic status and wellbeing. They may try to adopt a different approach, but the protests will go on and escalate. People are better educated. Some [protesters] are from the countryside, but there are also others from cities—graduates who are very aware of their rights.”

While there's no sympathy for skull-smashing cops, there is a feeling held by some that the protesters need to get their facts straight about PX. Because while the smog lingering over China's cities and towns is indisputably a very negative thing, the detrimental effects of PX are disputed by many.

Xia Zhaolin, professor of toxicology at Shanghai's Fudan University, told China Daily—which is censored, but isn't a government mouthpiece—"My research area is the impact of chemicals on workers' health, and PX is not even a subject that interests me.”

He added, "In real experiments, an animal would have to take in a massive amount of PX to reach levels that would result in death. The country is producing large amounts of other chemicals that are far more toxic than PX, such as benzene and chloroethylene. The reason PX is being singled out and has ignited such a large number of protests is that the government lacks trust from the public."

“They have lost faith in the system, basically,” agreed Dr. Willy Lam.

It seems as if years of inaction and shady environmental fact-veiling by the government has created this common viewpoint. So much so that any scientific claims made to bolster the authorities' position are instantly marked as propaganda, however robust they are. And every swinging baton makes it a little bit harder for Chinese people to believe what they have to say.

Follow Jamie Fullerton on Twitter: @amiefullerton1