People Power in China II: the Consequences

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Back in June, the people of the coastal city of Xiamen came out onto the streets for two successive days to protest plans to allow a billion-dollar chemical plant to be built within city limits. It was an unprecedented but entirely peaceful demonstration and, after considerable twists and turns, eventually resulted in the municipal government deciding to relocate the project to an island about 100 kilometers to the south of Xiamen. At the time, we noted that the authorities would have a hard time controlling the impulse to demonstrate in other cities. Sure enough, there were protests in Shanghai (over a planned train project) and elsewhere. They were entirely peaceful and relatively small, involving only a few hundred people. Now however, it looks as though that same chemical plant that caused the trouble in Xiamen is sparking large protest again, this time violent, with one or more protesters possibly dying. Reports remain sketchy—material on the internet in China is rapidly blocked or deleted—but it’s now clear that many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of residents living near the proposed site of the relocated plant have been showing their displeasure at the plan.

One post entitled, “New development on PX Project: Protest at Dongshan Island” on a Sohu.com (a popular portal) bulletin board mysteriously survived three days of censorship. Although the authorities never officially announced the plan to relocate the chemical plant to Gulei Peninsula in Zhangzhou City, the local opposition to the project was very strong. On Dongshan Island, which is next to the proposed project site, that opposition burst into the open on Feb.29.

“On Feb. 29th, the peaceful island witnessed a historic breakout by the residents. Thousands of people blocked the main roads in town and stopped all vehicles leaving for the government district of Dongshan County”, the post recounts. And this was only the prelude. On March 1, “thousands of motorcycles, vans, buses, and even more people took to the streets”, and an “even bigger demonstration has been planned for the next day”. According to the posts, several police cars were destroyed by “furious protestors”, and severe injuries occurred on both sides. A death toll of 1 or 3 is cited in the follow-up posts.

With a population of only 220,000, Dongshan Island mostly depends on tourism and the fishing industry for its local GDP. “We are diligent, honest and law abiding people. We put up with constant military exercises, we make a living by hard, honest labor, and what more do we have to give?” says an angry poster, “We can’t afford to live in Xiamen with the salary we make, and now we are driven away from Dongshan as well! If we put up with the pollution from PX and endure the consequences, how can we explain to future generations?”

The local Dongshan authorities responded to the protest on the morning of the 2nd with an “Open letter to Dongshan citizens”, broadcast only on local TV. Internet posts on the riot are quickly deleted as soon as they appear, but bits and pieces of surviving information indicate that the government’s open letter–which warned against further protests–failed to mollify the demonstrators.

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