Protesters Wary of Official Pledge

Officials in eastern China say they will suspend a plant producing toxic chemicals following mass protests.

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ningbo-protest-305.jpg Chinese protesters wave the national flag outside government offices in Ningbo, Oct. 28, 2012.

Protests against a planned petrochemical plant in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo entered their third day on Monday, in spite of promises by local officials that work on the U.S. $8.9 billion project would halt.

Tens of thousands of city residents took to the streets over the weekend, sparking clashes with police as the week-long environmental protest against the plant, owned by downstream petrochemical giant Sinopec, reached its peak.

But the government's pledges appeared to have done little to soothe fears over the plant on Monday.

"The government's resolution ... is an initial victory we achieved, but the government lacks the public's trust so this decision cannot be believed," a protester told Agence France-Presse on Monday.

He said that around 200 people had gathered outside the offices of the Ningbo municipal government on Monday morning.

An editorial on Monday in the Global Times newspaper, which has strong ties to China's ruling Communist Party, said the protests showed a lack of public involvement in decision-making.

"The government of Ningbo, Zhejiang Province officially announced the suspension of a PX project [on Sunday]," the paper said.

PX, or paraxylene, is a toxic petrochemical used in polyester products.

"The inadequate communication and the absence of effective interaction between [residents and officials] reveals that in many places, local governments are often at a loss on what to do when facing a major public crisis," the paper said, adding that the "victory" was a loss for the whole country.

Meanwhile, an editorial in the state-run China Daily newspaper said the recent increase in environmental protests showed the "obsession" of local officials with economic growth figures.

"Too many local governments are still preoccupied with gross domestic product," it said, referring to the total market value of the country’s annual goods and services.

"Some local leaders still need to acquaint themselves with the notion that residents' rights to a healthy environment must be adequately respected."

Mass protest

In scenes reminiscent of similar protests in Taizhou and Xiamen in recent years, protesters marched in their tens of thousands, carrying banners that read "PX plant, get out of Ningbo!" and singing the national anthem.

The authorities deployed thousands of riot police, who fired tear gas at the crowds, residents said.

"Yes, that's right, [they fired tear gas]," said one resident of Ningbo on Saturday. "You should get down here and report it."

"There were more than 10,000 people there," said a resident of Ningbo's Zhenhai township, the site of the proposed plant, which residents say will include a plant manufacturing PX.

"There were a lot of [riot police] there too," said the resident, who gave only her surname Wang. "The streets were so packed with people, you couldn't move."

"The buses were unable to run," she said, adding that most local people were afraid of life-threatening pollution from the plant.

"What can we do?" she asked. "They are putting a chemical plant here, and we have told them we don't want to live here any more, that they should demolish our homes."

"The leaders didn't agree, so we started to kick up a stink," Wang said. "That's how the demonstrations started."

A resident surnamed Shen said the protests, which began in smaller numbers earlier in the week, swelled to "hundreds of thousands" at their peak on Saturday.

"There were about 100,000 gathered there, protesting," Shen said. "They were also [protesting] in Ningbo's Tianyi Square."

A third Zhenhai resident, who declined to be named, said in an interview on Friday that people were just trying to protect "their own backyards."

"We don't want to allow these poisons in," he said. "We're not just following the herd here; we are here of our own free will."

An official who answered the phone at the Zhenhai township government said all local civil servants had been ordered to come to work over the weekend.

But she declined to comment on the protests: "If they tell us to come to work, that's what we do," she said.

Middle class resistance

Three decades of breakneck economic growth have left China reeling under what officials admit is a "grave" environmental crisis, sparking growing resistance on the part of China's home-owning, smartphone-wielding middle class.

In August, residents of the eastern city of Taizhou began to mobilize against plans to locate a PX plant near the city, while thousands gathered in the northeastern port city of Dalian in August 2011 to call on the government to close down a similar facility.

The protests, which resulted in a promise by the city's leaders to close the plant, echoed a similar movement in the southeastern port city of Xiamen in 2007, when the municipal government backed down on a planned PX plant following massive popular anger and demonstrations.

Officials have warned that more than half of China's cities are affected by acid rain, while one-sixth of its major rivers are too polluted even to water crops with.

Reported by Qiao Long and Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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