It feels like we’re living Dalian’s and Xiamen’s protests all over again, as neighbors from Maoming, in Guangdong province, take to the streets to halt the construction of a petrochemical factory. The Sinopec Corp (中国石化 ZhōngGuó ShíHuà) factory would be expected to manufacture paraxylene, and while the health and environmental side effects of the compound are considerable, the Maoming protests had an underlying meaning that show where Chinese society is heading.
Back in August 2011, protesters from Dalian, in Liaoning Province, confronted the local government demanding the closure of a paraxylene factory due to safety concerns. In an unexpected turn of events, local authorities did indeed close the factory in record time, and it could only be attributed to public pressure and the increasing power of Chinese netizens (网民 WǎngMín). Even if the netizens’ online displeasure expressed through Sina Weibo (微博 WēiBó)– often described Chinese Twitter – was promptly censored, the factory was closed, giving the public an undisputed victory.
Paraxylene, also known as p-Xylene or PX, is a chemical compound used to manufacture plastic bottles, polyester and packaging material. Exposure to paraxylene can cause dizziness, skin irritation, eye soreness, abdominal pain, nausea, and chemical pneumonitis, and in the long run it can cause hearing loss.
Just thinking about how many plastic bottles are used and disposed of in China every day is enough to understand that PX factories are common in China, and not an isolated incident. Kunming, Sichuan, Dalian, Xiamen, Ningbo and now Maoming have seen protests against PX factories.
The story repeats itself in Maoming. Peaceful protesters stood in front of local government offices demanding to halt the construction of a SinoPec factory. Versions here take different directions, with official sources saying that “a group of outlaws” forced the police hand to act violently, while netizens spoke of arbitrary violence. Protesters uploaded photos of people lying on the floor, covered in blood, but the photos also show at least one police van in flames.
The fact that the government took the media to accuse the protesters of criminal acts, backfired exponentially. When the Maoming Daily devoted its front page to praise the PX project, it ticked off the already heightened spirits. Soon the outrage wasn’t about PX and health: it was about civil and human rights. It was about not allowing the government to shape information at will.
The cascade of microblogs and discussions in several forums showed how Chinese citizens are demanding to have more power over governmental decisions. It’s not about the PX plant, one Weibo user said, it’s about being consulted about building the plant.
Weibo users took the platform to criticize the government’s restrictions on peaceful demonstrations and the “arrogant” way in which the government decides over public matters without consultation.
Despite the criticism and the suspected but unconfirmed detentions, the government did react to the public requests and declared that no factory would be built without previous consultation. The Chinese central government is a mighty machine that has its rigid system perhaps too well established for its own good. However, we can see how it, slowly but surely, is evolving before our own eyes into a more open and flexible system. While we shall never condone violence against the Chinese population, we must acknowledge China’s efforts – public and governmental – to become a fairer, freer society.