Authorities in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming have clamped down on public protests against a planned petrochemical plant, imposing tough new rules for real-name registration in local shops and businesses in recent days, business owners said on Wednesday.
Protests against government plans to produce paraxylene (PX) at a petrochemical plant in Anning city, near the Yunnan provincial capital, have brought large crowds of local residents in recent weeks onto the streets in face-masks emblazoned with slogans, and with printed placards opposing the plan.
An employee who answered the phone at a print services shop in Kunming on Wednesday confirmed the new measures were in place.
"That's right," the employee said, when asked if the shop now required customers using its photocopying services to provide their real names.
The employee said the business had been warned not to allow printing or photocopying of certain materials.
"Anything to do with the petrochemical plant can't be printed," the employee said.
The owner of a second print services shop in Kunming confirmed the measures.
"I think that even people who are having business cards printed have to register," he said, adding: "Someone from the police station will come and check. They come every day."
'Important to act quickly'
Yunnan-based environmental activist Zhang Zhengxiang said protesters felt it was important to act quickly to oppose the plant.
"They are cracking down now, so that we can't take part or discuss the matter," Zhang said. "If any marches or protests take place, they detain people."
"They will also fire anyone who works for the government, and they will expel from education any student whose parents take part," he said. "A lot of people have been informed of this now."
But he said public fears about the project are still strong.
"If we wait until this has already happened, then people will die," Zhang said. "By that time it'll be meaningless to pursue it."
Earlier this month, censors in Beijing blocked information about the protest movement, while the mayor of Kunming took to social media in a bid to mollify local residents, drawing further ire.
Zhu Xinxin, a former editor with the state-run Hebei Television station, said the crackdown on protest or debate about the plant showed how little respect the ruling Communist Party has for the rule of law.
"They see the law as a tool in their hands, and they don't hold it in much regard," Zhu said. "They can totally do what they want, and act outside the limits of the law," he said
'Nothing to fear'
An official surnamed Li who answered the phone at the environmental protection department of the Yunnan provincial government said the protesters have nothing to fear from the plant, however.
"There has been a lot of public opposition to the PX project, but you can turn it around and say that this will encourage the government to take preventive measures against pollution from the petrochemical plant," the official said.
"As officials, we are the mother and father of the province, so we certainly won't allow any serious pollution to spoil Kunming," Li said.
Online posts said similar restrictions had been imposed in Chengdu, capital of neighboring Sichuan province, where residents have also come out in force against a new petrochemical project in recent weeks.
"It's the same in Chengdu," wrote microblogger @yxjlm on Wednesday. "All information about opposition to the Pengzhou petrochemical plant has been blocked, and there are armed police patrolling the streets."
"You need to register [with your real name] to buy a face mask or to print stuff," the tweet said.
Sichuan-based environmental activist Yang Yong said authorities had tried to locate PX facilities in a number of major Chinese cities in recent years, including Dalian and Xiamen, only to meet with vocal public opposition each time.
"These cities have a limited capacity [to absorb pollution] and very dense populations," Yang said.
"Their ecosystems are fragile and the local people are worried that constructing a huge petrochemical plant there will damage the environment and the city's reputation."
China National Petroleum Corp (PetroChina), the country's largest oil and gas producer and supplier, announced in February that the refinery project at Anning, just outside Kunming, was approved by the top state planning body in Beijing.
The planned plant would have a refining capacity of 10 million tons a year, of which 650,000 tons would be PX, a carcinogenic petrochemical used in the textiles industry, according to a Yunnan environmental official.
State media have quoted company officials as saying that the refinery will not produce PX, however.
Worsening levels of air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced ordinary Chinese to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protest.
China has a comprehensive set of environmental protection legislation, but close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level, activists and experts say.
Reported by Yang Fan and Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.