After the heavy-handed reaction this spring to the calls to being Jasmine Revolution-style demonstrations to China, it’s easy to think that the authorities’ only response to popular protest is to crack down. But as events in northeast China this weekend indicate, the government can be remarkably receptive to demonstrations, especially when their goal is limited and not a direct challenge to the state. On Sunday, after more than 10,000 people turned out to protest in the coastal city of Dalian, the local government agreed to move a chemical plant that residents worried put their health at risk.
The Fujia factory produces paraxylene, also known as PX, a chemical used in making plastics and fabrics that can cause eye and throat irritation or even death with prolonged exposure. The plant was put at risk last week after a tropical storm breached a sea wall. While the government denied any leaks had escaped, the incident raised locals’ concerns about the two-year old factory. Dalian is home to a large refining and chemical producing industry, and last year an explosion at a terminal there caused a large oil spill. Following the bumbling response to a deadly train crash last month, the government hardly wanted to provoke further public anger by downplaying popular safety concerns. On Wednesday state media had already reported that the Dalian government was considering moving the Fujia plant.
Sunday’s protest forced it to act. Thousands of citizens gathered near central municipal buildings, carrying signs calling for the removal of the plant. The initial response of the government included posting large numbers of riot police and blocking searches of related terms on some Chinese websites. On the popular microblog site Sina Weibo, for instance, searches for the city’s name turned up a message that due to legal restrictions, the results could not be shown. But posters outran the censorship efforts, and photos of the demonstrations circulated widely online. (Here is one good gallery.) By late afternoon Dalian’s Communist Party committee and Fujia announced that the plant, which lies 20 km from the city center, would be relocated.
This action follows similar protests against a PX project in the southern coastal city of Xiamen in 2007 that succeeded in having the plant moved out of town. Xinhua, the state-run news service, reported that the Dalian PX plant contributes about $311 million in taxes to the city each year, which raises questions about how the government will plug the revenue hole, and how quickly it will work to remove the plant. But while the plant relocation will hurt local government revenues, it may help Dalian follow the path of cities like Beijing, that have pushed factories and heavy industry far from population centers. During a recent visit to Dalian, I noticed some of that transition happening. Along the city’s harbor, where old industries like shipbuilding still operate, new shopping outlets like Ikea and Decathlon have gone up.
The decision to move the plant is a clear victory for the demonstrators, and raises the possibility that other NIMBY protests against heavy industry will follow. But while Dalian showed tolerance for a largely middle class protest about a specific quality of life issue, demonstrators posing a more direct challenge to the government are still unlikely to find any welcome in China.