Tea Leaf Nation

Explosion of Once-Scuttled Chemical Plant Riles China’s Web

Social media has made environmental disasters national affairs.

A major fire engulfs a paraxylene chemical plant after an explosion in Zhangzhou, southeast China's Fujian province on April 6, 2015. The plant produces paraxylene (PX), a flammable chemical used in polyester and plastics manufacturing. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

After a massive factory explosion, the Chinese web is reverberating with the sound of a thousand bitter “I told you so’s.” On April 6, a chemical plant in the southern coastal city of Zhangzhou went up in flames captured in photos circulating online (and pictured above), releasing a tall column of black smoke along with shock waves so powerful that local residents thought there had been an earthquake. But this wasn’t just any factory. It produced paraxylene, a substance that many believe to cause harmful side effects; and it was this very factory which in 2007 sparked a rare and successful NIMBY (i.e. not in my backyard) demonstration which eventually compelled local authorities to relocate it. Now that the factory has come to an ill-fated end, its detractors feel vindicated.

“The people of Xiamen were right,” wrote one user in a widely echoed comment on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, where the plant fire is the most discussed topic. In June 2007, news that local authorities were to permit the construction of a paraxylene factory in Xiamen, a coastal city close to Zhangzhou, spread quickly among city residents. In what would become a high-profile example of the power of technology to mobilize dissent, activists used text messages to disseminate information about paraxylene’s alleged risks, galvanizing Xiamen residents to take to the streets to protest the factory’s construction. After the public outcry, authorities agreed to suspend the plans, and the factory was eventually erected in the neighboring community of Zhangzhou.

Paraxylene looms large in the Chinese consciousness. The chemical compound — a material used in the production of some plastics which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stated may cause harmful side effects — has inspired some of China’s most successful and widely- followed NIMBY protests. These include not just the Xiamen demonstrations, but also subsequent protests in the cities of Dalian in August 2011, Ningbo in October 2012, and Maoming in April 2014. The protests follow a now-familiar refrain: local authorities, eager for the revenue and economic development that such an endeavor would bring, back a proposal to build a paraxylene plant in their region. When residents learn of the plans, they protest, often leading to official repression of the demonstrations and media censorship. Eventually, however, authorities cave, and the factory in question is scuttled. Social media, while subject to censorship in China’s tightly regulated Internet, has come to play an important role in these protests, allowing local residents to air their complaints, connect with one another, and place their local grievances in a national context.

It’s a debate that has pitted proponents of economic development against those who would protect the environment and the health of local residents. “Many chemical factories use paraxylene as a raw material, so China needs a lot of it,” argued one Weibo user. “If we relied only on imports, think of how much money that would require.” But as environmental pollution has reached alarming levels in the swiftly industrializing country, more Chinese have come to oppose an economic model that often prioritizes regional growth over the well-being of locals. As one user in Fuzhou wrote, the relocation of the paraxylene factory away from Xiamen may have reduced city revenue, but in the long term “the health of the people is priceless, What this era needs the most,” he continued, “are cities whose residents dare to express their opinions.”

Netizens also blasted the government’s support of paraxylene-related initiatives, and what some saw as self-interested attempts to educate the public on the safety of the compound. “With this big of an accident, how is this not a huge slap in the face for the government?” wrote one Weibo user in Shanghai. “This calls for a mass demonstration.” Netizens also expressed anger at what they believed to be official attempts at information control. In an April 6 post to its official Weibo account, party mouthpiece People’s Daily urged nearby residents refrain from taking photos of the factory, touching off a volley of sarcasm. “Don’t worry, the experts said it’s safe,” wrote one Weibo user. “We’ll just take a couple of pictures as souvenirs, we won’t post them online.”

To be sure, a factory explosion does not prove that paraxylene is toxic. That’s a distinction that some online commenters have been careful to make. One Weibo user urged everyone to keep a cool head and “treat paraxylene logically,” asking, “Should we stop producing oil when an oil pipeline explodes?” But others have argued that the explosion is itself indicative of the lack of effective safety controls that make paraxylene, long produced in such industrialized countries as the United States and Japan, so dangerous in a country like China – where authorities still struggle to guarantee the safe production of food. “It’s not that we don’t trust science,” one user wrote. “It’s that we don’t trust our government’s regulatory system.” Another concluded, “Just because paraxylene is safe abroad doesn’t mean it’s safe here.”

AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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