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Protests force Chinese factory to close

August 18, 2011

August 14, 2011  Financial Times

By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing

Chinese authorities ordered a petrochemical factory to close on Sunday after more than 12,000 demonstrators confronted riot police, demanding the plant’s relocation over health fears.
Scuffles broke out between police and protesters, mostly young people, in the public square in front of the municipal government offices in Dalian, Liaoning province, but Chinese state media gave no reports of injuries.
Public anger in the north-east Chinese city has erupted after the Fujia Chemical Plant, which produces the toxic chemical paraxylene, or PX, came close to being inundated with sea water during a tropical storm last week.
Hours after the protest began, the Dalian government issued a statement, saying it had ordered the chemical plant to close immediately and pledging to relocate it because of public fears that it was prone to toxic leaks.
Sunday’s mass action was one of the largest urban protests of recent years and the latest in a growing number of demonstrations against environmental disasters and degradation caused by China’s rapid industrialisation and economic development.
It also presented the latest challenge to a stability-obsessed government that refuses to countenance meaningful political reforms but must govern a population that is increasingly wealthy, connected via the internet, critical of poor governance and distrustful of its leaders.
On Sunday, many of the demonstrators sang the national anthem and carried banners emphasising their patriotism in an apparent attempt to avoid the harsh response often meted out to dissidents.
Dalian’s senior officials, Tang Jun, the Communist party secretary, and Li Wancai, the mayor, “tried to appease the crowd by promising to move the plant out of the city”, reported the state-run Xinhua news agency.
But protesters told Xinhua they wanted a clear timetable for the removal of the plant. Some said they would refuse to leave the square until a timetable was given.
Last Monday, the government evacuated the homes of people near the Fujia plant after huge waves from tropical storm Muifa breached a dyke that was supposed to protect the plant, state media reported.
The plant is built on reclaimed land about 20km from the centre of the city of 6m people. With annual production capacity of 700,000 tonnes, it is one of the largest PX producers in China.
The chemical is widely used in production of paints, plastics and polyester, but can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. Chronic exposure can result in genetic defects and death.
Dalian residents complain they were mostly kept in the dark about the Fujia plant’s construction, which began in 2005.
Public anger was further fuelled last week when media reports said the plant started full-scale production in June 2009 but did not receive the necessary environmental approvals until April 2010.
Public consultation over such projects is rare in China, and government officials often push through big industrial developments without heeding public opposition, environmental concerns or environmental laws.
In 2008, large public protests in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen forced authorities to scrap plans to build a similar PX plant in a densely populated area. The location was switched to a more remote site.
But environmentalists say that if Dalian officials keep their promise to relocate the Fujia plant, it will be the first time a large, operational petrochemical factory has been relocated in China because of public concerns.
As with many recent protests in China, Sunday’s demonstration in Dalian was apparently organised through Chinese micro-blogging and instant messaging websites such as Sina Weibo and QQ.
Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, which are banned in China, have been crucial to the organisation of a wave of protests and uprisings across the Middle East this year.
China’s censors appeared to be working overtime on Sunday, blocking searches on popular websites for words such as “protest”, “Dalian” and “PX” and rapidly deleting pictures and messages about the demonstration.

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