A new outbreak of NIMBY protests hits China's streets, and its Internet.
On the morning of March 30, hundreds of residents of Maoming, a medium-sized city in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, hit the streets to protest a proposed expansion to an existing petrochemical plant jointly run by local government authorities and Sinopec Corp, China’s powerful state-owned oil company. The expansion includes plans to produce paraxylene, also known as PX, an important component in plastic bottles that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency believes may cause harmful side effects with long-term exposure. As images of protesters spread online, official efforts to seize the narrative have failed so far.
Chinese authorities exercise strict control over burgeoning "mass incidents," to use official argot referring to protests. But so-called not-in-my-backyard, or NIMBY, incidents arising from environmental concerns have become increasingly common in China in recent years along with heightened pollution concerns. Projects involving PX are a particular sore point. In June 2007, residents in the coastal city of Xiamen — mobilized via a text-message campaign — protested and successfully blocked the building of a plant that planned to produce paraxylene. Protests in the coastal city of Ningbo in October 2012 and northeastern city of Dalian in August 2011 also blocked paraxylene plants.
Perhaps mindful of the potency of NIMBY protests to become national news via social media — and scuttle planned projects — local authorities in Maoming first went on a media offensive. According to a March 31 press release from the Maoming municipal government, what began as a peaceful demonstration eventually turned into a violent confrontation between protesters and police when demonstrators began throwing rocks and plastic bottles. Though the official press release noted that there were no deaths, pictures depicting the demonstration — as well as photos of bloodied protestors allegedly beaten by riot police, the burned-out frame of a police van, and paramilitary police marching in formation — surfaced on Weibo, China’s massive Twitter-like social media platform, before being swiftly deleted by censors. That same day, the official Weibo account of the Maoming municipal government’s press office posted a notice criticizing the "grave [and] illegal activity" of protestors who had not obtained a proper permit from relevant authorities in violation of Chinese law, "seriously disturbing social order." The official notice also called upon residents to "believe the government" and only use "legal channels" to express their opinions about the PX plant.
The government’s online hardball seems to have backfired. Among more than 1,300 comments to the online notice, many criticized both the government’s handling of the protest as well as its involvement in the petrochemical plant. One Weibo user asked rhetorically, "Who has ever seen an application for protest be approved?" In another popular comment, one user suggested sarcastically that in order to prove the plant is not harmful, Maoming officials should move their offices and homes next door, and "send their family members to work at the plant."
Netizens also reacted with scorn to the Maoming government press office’s seemingly conciliatory announcement, made later on March 31 — perhaps in response to the online vitriol that greeted their initially hardball tactic — stating that the plans were still in an initial "scientific stage," and that no action would be taken without first consulting popular opinion. In a popular riposte, one user asked, "Why is it that every time we have to use this kind of extreme method in order to get you to be transparent?"
On April 1, photos circulated suggesting that the protest spread to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. Images of peaceful demonstrators protesting next to the Guangdong Provincial Government circulated on Weibo with the caption, "People are expressing their demands in a peaceful, rational way." The spread has raised the protest’s official profile; on April 1, China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, ran an article reiterating Maoming authorities’ statement that "if the vast majority of residents are opposed, the Maoming government bureau will most certainly not go against the people’s opinion."
While authorities have lightened criticism of protesters and acknowledged the legitimacy of grassroots concerns, authorities have nevertheless continued to insist that a PX plant would be beneficial. On March 31, the official media outlet Maoming Daily ran a front-page article called "PX in Daily Life," written by a Chinese government-sponsored chemical engineer, guaranteeing the safety of paraxylene. Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily also wrote on its official Weibo account, in a post shared over 18,000 times, that the "reason behind the public concern about PX is lack of trust in the environmental impact assessment, safety, and regulation of PX." It attached an article (excerpted in the above image) that sought to explain the industrial importance of paraxylene.
For many grassroots observers, assurances of paraxylene’s safety miss the point. Zhao Chu, a military affairs expert with over 1 million Weibo followers, wrote in a post that was later deleted by censors, "Whether or not PX is toxic is a scientific question, but to build a PX-producing factory is an issue of local public policy, and the people of that region have a natural right to speak, as well as the right to participate in the final decision." Another Weibo user complained, that the protest’s "main cause" was not the plant itself, but an "arrogant approach" by government that "makes nothing public or transparent."