Chinese protesters force municipal government to back off from chemical plant plan

Living on Earth, 8 November, 2012

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[Chinese protesters, like the one pictured here, have had success recently in beating back industrial projects. (Photo by Josh Chin.)]

China’s efforts to grow its economy and its manufacturing base are meeting resistance as the country’s middle class burgeons. In Ningbo, a plan to build a petrochemical plant was beaten back by protesters in the street who say these plants are affecting their health.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Ningbo, China, recently in opposition to a petrochemical plant they feel is a danger to public health.

After three days of demonstrations, and clashes between protesters and the police, the government has called the project off — at least for now.

Ben Carlson, a journalist with the Global Post who lives in Hong Kong, said the protests started out as a series of smaller protests.

“By the time the weekend rolled around there were several thousand people in the streets,” he said. “There were reports of the protesters overturning cars, and the police arrested several of the demonstrators — that actually became one of the causes that people were demonstrating against later on.”

Ningbo is prosperous and ancient, Carlson said,–and has one of the oldest histories in China, but they’ve also been trying to develop industries. That has led to great GDP growth, but people have actually noticed that their health is getting worse. Plans to build this petrochemical plant set off city residents who don’t want to see their health compromise further.

Specifically, they’re concerned about the presence of perazylene at the plant.

“It’s actually a chemical that has been the cause of protests in other parts of China,” Carlson said. “It’s definitely something to be worried about – it causes central nervous system damage, liver damage, and it has proven cognitive effects.”

While the existing plan for the new petrochemical plant has definitely been officially shelved, Carlson said no one is sure whether the government is really going to follow through.

“About a year ago there was a similar protest with the exact same chemical and the government promised to stop production, but it’s still going on now,” he said.

China historically has been very tough on demonstrations, including killings student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“A strange thing about protests in China is that environmental protests are actually treated more lightly. It’s not as political, so there’s less sensitivity around it,” Carlson said. “We may see that change.

The Chinese government is in the midst of its 18th National Congress right now — a factor Carlson said definitely contributed to the Chinese government backing away from its plan.

“There are reports that the internet is slowing down, people have to go through much greater security, and there’s a lot of pressure on local governments to make the problems disappear,” he said. “They don’t want any bad news when they’re going to be transferring the power.”

News of the protesters victory has been hugely popular on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

There have been other environmental protests in China as well, in Sichuan and Dalian over the exact same chemical.

“There have been protests over coal plants, there’s definitely going to be more of these,” Carlson said. “There is going to be no shortage of local governments in China that are going to try to build factories just as big and just as polluting as the one in Ningbo, and I definitely think that you are seeing a disconnected local sense of environmental awareness growing.”

It’s possible that China, as its middle class grows, may have reached a tipping point, where environmental concerns suddenly become much more salient and much more important.

“The way that China has been growing and growing and has been building factories that are too dangerous for other countries, is no longer acceptable to a lot of these people,” he said.

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