Residents took to the streets of a provincial capital over the weekend to protest a multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant backed by China’s leading state-run oil company, in the latest instance of popular discontent over an environmental threat in a major city.
The protest, against a $5.5 billion ethylene plant under construction by PetroChina in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, reflected a surge in environmental awareness by urban, middle-class Chinese determined to protect their health and the value of their property. A similar protest last year, against a Taiwanese-financed petrochemical venture in Xiamen, in China’s southeast, left that project in limbo.
The recent protest, which was peaceful, was organized through Web sites, blogs and cellphone text messages, illustrating how some Chinese are using digital technology to start civic movements, which are usually banned by the police. Organizers also used text messages to publicize their cause nationally.
The protesters walked calmly through downtown Chengdu for several hours on Sunday afternoon to criticize the building of a combined ethylene plant and oil refinery in Pengzhou, 18 miles northwest of the city center. Some protesters wore white masks over their mouths to evoke the dangers of pollution. About 400 to 500 protesters took part in the march, witnesses said.
Organizers circumvented a national law that requires protesters to apply for a permit by saying they were only out for a “stroll.”
Critics of the Pengzhou plan said in interviews on Monday that the government had not done proper environmental reviews of the project, which could pollute the air and water and lead to health hazards.
“We’re not dissidents,” said Wen Di, an independent blogger and former journalist living in Chengdu. “We’re just people who care about our homeland. 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, an environmental advocate who is a geologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Chengdu, sent out a mass cellphone message that had been written by one of the movement’s leaders and was being widely circulated across the country. “Protect our Chengdu, safeguard our homeland,” it said. “Stay away from the threat of pollution. Restore the clear water and green mountains of Sichuan.”
In an interview, Mr. Fan said, “People have been hoping this issue would get more attention.”
The protest captured the national spotlight on Monday when it was reported in The Beijing News, a newspaper that is popular with intellectuals and sometimes reports on issues that other state-run publications do not mention.
The plant is a joint venture of the Sichuan provincial government and PetroChina, the publicly traded subsidiary of the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, the country’s main oil producer. Approved last year, the plant is expected to produce 800,000 tons of ethylene and refine 10 million tons of crude oil a year, according to a Web site set up by the Pengzhou city government. Ethylene is widely used in the production of goods like packaging and trash liners.
Repeated calls to the joint venture company, PetroChina Sichuan Petrochem Industry, went unanswered. The project’s Web site said that $565 million of the total investment would be dedicated to environmental protection.
The march appears to have put government officials on the defensive. A brief front-page article arguing the merits of the project appeared Monday in a state-controlled newspaper, Chengdu Business News. The article said the project had been approved by the National Development and Reform Commission as part of a long-term plan to expand the country’s refining industry.
“The Sichuan refinery project will install advanced equipment and improve environmental protection facilities with strict pollution prevention,” the article said.
Police officials in Chengdu, reached by telephone, declined to comment on the march.
Rural protests by farmers have taken place for years, sometimes prompting heavy-handed suppression. Civil action by wealthier urban residents are still relatively rare, but the movement in Chengdu is at least the third widely publicized groundswell in the past year.
Construction of a Taiwanese-financed chemical plant outside the city of Xiamen, a port in Fujian Province, was halted last year after thousands of residents held street protests. Last winter, residents in Shanghai protested construction of an extension to the high-speed rail line called the Maglev, forcing officials to put that project on hold as well.
In each of those cases, residents complained that the project was situated too close to a major population center and had received only cursory environmental review despite serious environmental and health risks. The protests in Xiamen and Shanghai got prominent attention on Web sites and in the Chinese news media, which, despite state control, have sometimes encouraged more public participation in environmental issues.
Protest organizers in each city appear to have no formal links, but they have formed a tight-knit blogging network that they use to trade ideas in an online world that the police, particularly at the local level, have trouble trying to control.
One outspoken critic of the Chengdu project posts regularly on one site that is frequented by Lian Yue, a blogger who was instrumental in organizing the Xiamen protests.
“We’re definitely inspired by the events in Xiamen and Shanghai,” said the critic, who asked to be identified only by her family name, Wu, because she said she worried about attracting the attention of the authorities.
“Chengdu is in a basin,” she said. “If there’s a chemical plant there, it’ll bring pollutants. Also, Pengzhou is upstream from Chengdu, and the river provides the city’s drinking water.”
On Sunday night and Monday, a flurry of messages and photos from protesters excited by the march appeared across the Internet. One person calling himself Devil Xiaomi seemed to sum up the complaints of Chengdu residents.
“What Chengdu people demand is very simple,” he said. “This is a policy closely related to people’s interests, so why was it not open to the public?”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 8, 2008
An article on Tuesday about a street protest in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu against a planned petrochemical plant referred incorrectly to Xiamen, an eastern Chinese city where protesting residents stopped construction of a nearby chemical plant last year. It is a seaport in Fujian Province — not the provincial capital, which is Fuzhou.
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