Anti-pollution march staged in western China
Monday, May 5, 2008
Hundreds of people marched in a western provincial capital over the weekend to protest environmental risks they say are associated with the construction of a petrochemical factory and oil refinery, witnesses said Monday.
It was the latest in a series of rare but increasingly ambitious grass-roots movements in Chinese cities aimed at derailing government-backed industrial projects that could damage the environment and people's health.
The protest Sunday, like its predecessors, was organized through Web sites, blogs and cellphone text messages, showing how some Chinese are using digital technology, despite government attempts to control the Internet, to spur on the kind of civic movements that are usually disapproved of by officials.
The protesters in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, walked peacefully through the center of the city for several hours Sunday afternoon to criticize the building of an ethylene plant and oil refinery in Pengzhou, a few minutes' drive outside the city. Some protesters wore white face masks to highlight the dangers of pollution.
About 400 to 500 protesters took part in the march, which was watched by dozens of police officers, witnesses said.
Organizers circumvented a law that requires protesters to apply for a permit by saying they were only out for a "stroll."
Critics of the project said in interviews Monday that the government had not done proper environmental reviews of the projects, which they said could pollute the air and water and lead to health hazards.
"We're not dissidents; we're just people who care about our homeland," said Wen Di, an independent blogger and former journalist living in Chengdu. "What we're saying is that if you want to have this project, you need to follow certain procedures: for example, a public hearing and independent environmental assessment. We want a fair and open process."
Fan Xiao, a geologist and environmental advocate based in Chengdu, sent out a mass cellphone text message Monday morning that had been written by one of the leaders of the protest movement and was being widely circulated across the country. "Protect our Chengdu, safeguard our homeland," it read. "Stay away from the threat of pollution. Restore the clear water and green mountains of Sichuan."
In an interview, Fan said, "People have been hoping this issue would get more attention."
The chemical plant and oil refinery is a joint venture of the Sichuan provincial government and PetroChina, a publicly traded oil company that is the listed arm of China National Petroleum Corp., the state-owned concern that is the country's largest oil producer.
The project, approved last year, is expected to produce 800,000 tons of ethylene per year and to refine 10 million tons of crude oil per year, according to the joint venture's Web site.
Repeated calls to the company set up by the joint venture, PetroChina Sichuan Petrochem Industry, went unanswered Monday. The official view of the project was represented by a brief front-page article that appeared Monday in a state-controlled newspaper, The Chengdu Business News.
"The Sichuan refinery project will install advanced equipment, apply new techniques and improve environment protection facilities with strict pollution prevention and risk control schemes," the article read. "The project passed an assessment by the relevant national departments after several hearings and revisions by many distinguished experts in the oil-refining industry and environment protection."
The protest movement in Chengdu is at least the third such groundswell to emerge in recent years.
Last year, construction of a chemical plant outside Xiamen, in Fujian Province, was halted after residents held a series of street protests.
More recently, residents in Shanghai protested construction of a high-speed rail line designed to link a suburb with the airport, forcing officials to announce that the project was being delayed.
In both cases, residents complained that the projects would bring significant environmental and health risks.
Zhang Jing and Huang Yuanxi contributed research.