Blink and you’d miss it.
Many people will have heard how a text message campaign halted construction of a chemical plant in Xiamen. What wasn’t as widely reported was the follow-up to it – peaceful, public protest not just once, but twice.
The text message in Xiamen, circulated in late May, called for a rally outside the city government’s headquarters on June 1st to protest against plans to build a huge chemical factory on a site, pictured above, in the suburbs. It compared building the $1.4 billion plant for making paraxylene, used in polyester, to dropping an â€œatomic bombâ€ on Xiamen. It warned readers that the factory could cause leukaemia and birth deformities among the city’s 2.3m residents and their offspring (hence the choice of June 1st, children’s day in China).
The response was remarkable. Xiamen has a thriving economy and little history of protest. Yet many thousands of people rallied and marched, even though it was Friday, a working day, and as usual hot and humid. They came mostly from China’s fast-growing middle class, a group the Communist Party usually regards as a dependable bulwark of support. In many Chinese cities there have been small-scale middle-class protests over issues related to property rights. But they are rarely directed at city governments.
Even more remarkable is that the protest occurred in the face of clear government disapproval. Civil servants were warned they might be punished for taking part. Government offices even required their employees to keep working on the weekend of June 2nd and 3rd to prevent them taking to the streets. On May 30th the government appeared to make a big concession by announcing a suspension of the project pending a further environmental review. But the protest went ahead two days later anyway. At one point some people shouted slogans calling on the city’s party chief, He Lifeng, to resign, but the demonstration was peaceful. Thousands marched again on June 2nd.
What is interesting is that no one tried to stop the marchers. Even though the march was peaceful, government officials are always concerned by any protest against “the established order” (unless foreigners not especially favoured by Beijing are the target). Clearly the city’s bosses didn’t have the nerve stop the protestors, despite the fearsome reputation China has for crushing dissidence. This isn’t a sign that the authorities are becoming more tolerant – in my mind it suggests that Chinese can actually stand up to them as a group. As the Economist continues, the response was to try to find the “ringleaders”, not even to deploy the Police to stop them marching a second time.
In Xiamen, having made their last-minute concession, officials are now trying to track down behind-the-scenes organisers of the protests (some residents believe property developers, worried about the impact of the project on prices, encouraged people to take part). Notices have been put up in residential buildings calling on protesters to surrender themselves to police.
However, their chance of success is limited.
But such tactics inspire far less fear than they did in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Some residents say they now want a referendum on the project. A professor at Xiamen University says that if the project’s opponents win, a new â€œenvironmental consciousnessâ€ will spread to other Chinese cities.
When I used to comment that environmental concerns could play a big part in motivating citizens against government policy, a lot of Chinese would poo-poo that suggestion claiming that Chinese “just want to get rich”. But what is the point of getting rich if you can’t enjoy it properly? Pollution can rather put a crimp in your day, especially the lives of your children. If anything, now that many Chinese are richer they will start to demand a cleaner environment for them and their families so they can get the maximum enjoyment out of their money.
This is not good for the CCP. Despite a lot of talk about the environment, it still sees full-blown economic growth as the only road forward for China. Otherwise it would put performance on reducing pollution ahead of economic growth in terms of rating officials’ performance – I have not heard a word to suggest they have or will do that. Yes, it’s good to be green, but not at the cost of growth. Beijing effectively said that when it refused to commit to any targets for CO2 emissions, whether in terms of limiting increases or reducing current levels.
The fact the CCP is against prioritising the environment will increasingly bring it into conflict with Chinese who suffer from pollution. This isn’t just a few peasants, but includes more and more city-dwellers (as the Xiamen episode indicates) who want a healthy, not just wealthy, lifestyle. This isn’t some “hippy idealism” about it being wrong to pollute – it’s about how people live on a day-to-day basis, something they can’t escape from.
The question is, how fast will this â€œenvironmental consciousnessâ€ spread? Doubtless we shall see over the coming years. I certainly hope the Xiamen protestors emerge victorious from their battle, so that organised opposition to unchecked economic growth spreads more quickly across China. For China cannot ever hope to flourish in the future if it doesn’t tackle pollution seriously. I would like to hope the central government will respond first, but I have a feeling it will require mass public feeling to get them to take the problem seriously enough.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.