Saturday’s peaceful protest in Kunming may be the first of many against a polluting PX chemical plant slated for construction inside Kunming’s city limits. Nearly 2000 people participated in the well organized protest, and the crowd met zero resistance from the 200+ police and public security officers sent to the site to maintain order. For more than three hours, citizens wore “No PX” face masks and paraded around the protest site waving banners and posters sporting slogans like “PX project, get out of Kunming” and “I want green!” Different from other protests I’ve seen in China, the organizers divided the site into teach-in zones where crowds of hundreds could listen to those who had a message to deliver. In the end, no arrests were made and there were zero scuffles between protesters or with the police.
In January of this year, China’s central government passed approval for a 10mn ton PetroChina oil refinery located in the Caopu Industrial Zone near Anning, a satellite city 40km west of downtown Kunming. The refinery is scheduled for opening in 2018. Government officials are currently debating an additional plant that processes a chemical named paraxylene, a by-product of the oil refining process. More commonly known as PX, the chemical is used in the plastics and textiles industries. Long-term indirect exposure to PX is shown to cause cancer in adults and physical development problems in children. Direct exposure in large quantities is fatal. The proposed PX plant site sits directly in the path of westerly wind patterns that feed Kunming, a rapidly urbanizing metropolis of 7mn, with air and rainwater.
On Friday, May 3, messages announcing the protest went viral Chinese social media sites Weixin (WeChat) and Weibo. “Oppose Kunming’s PX project: Join at 13:30 on May 4 at Nanping Square for a civil march. Quietly anticipate no disputes, no shutting down streets, no barring of doors, no garbage, civil expression!” At the start of the protest, four organized teach-in sites, spread out across the Nanping Square protest zone, began to draw crowds of 50 to 100 participants and listeners. The zone, approximately the size of a football field, was loosely surrounded by more than 100 uniformed policemen dressed in their standard uniforms. None of the security forces onsite wore riot gear or carried batons.
At the teach-in sites, students from local universities and other organizers discussed the dangers of PX and passed out face masks marked with “No PX in Kunming.” They also emphasized the lack of public participation in the oil refinery’s approval process and absence of public disclosure of the project’s Environmental Impact Assessments by PetroChina – both measures are required by China’s environmental regulation legal processes.
Around the world, PX processing plants can be found in downtown Singapore, across the Hudson from New York City, and within London’s city limits, but effective environmental regulations in Singapore, the US, and the UK tightly monitor PX production so much so that it is not known as a major environmental threat in the developed world. The leading cause of death in China is cancer – an indicator of the country’s appalling environmental conditions, and in recent years anti-PX demonstrations have formed the battle cry of white collar urbanites against China’s deteriorating urban environment. Since 2007 protests in Xiamen, Dalian, and Ningbo, all of which attracted thousands of protesters (and all larger than Kunming’s protest) somewhat successfully forced city governments to shut down PX refineries or move them far outside their city’s boundaries. On May 4, a similar protest scheduled for Chengdu was quashed by local security forces before it could moblize. Kunming residents are pessimistic that their PX refinery will be cancelled citing Kunming’s weak power status on China’s urban hierarchy and location on China’s border frontier which suggests less attention and benevolence from China’s central leadership in Beijing.
The demonstration gathered steam at 2:00pm when attendance at the teach-in sites grew too large – spontaneity then served as the event’s core driver. It is important to note that despite China’s registered 100,000+ organized protests per year, large scale urban protests of this kind are rare and thus many demonstration tactics are untested. Protesters unveiled black and white posters and leaflets with slogans such as “PX Project, Get Out!”and “I Love Kunming!” Spontaneous chants of “We Want Green! We Want a Spring City” and “Chemical plant, get out of Kunming” began to rise in chorus and were greeted with cheers and applause. Someone unveiled a long red banner with these words in white: Anning oil refinery, don’t put our home into environmental hell! The crowd rallied around the banner and took it on a concerted march around the protest site. At this point there were more than 1000 people on the square and files of policemen started to move through the masses.
Dalian’s PX problem was similar to Kunming’s. The northeastern port city’s PX plant was located along its and in 2011 cracks began to appear in the man-made sea wall that separated the refinery from the ocean creating a potential disaster where millions of tons of PX could have leaked into Dalian’s coastal waters. In August 2011, 12000 protesters took to the streets and the city mayor promised to move the refinery. In the 1990’s Dalian’s former mayor, the now disgraced and imprisoned Bo Xilai, transformed the port city into the “Hong Kong of the North.” Dalian’s pristine beaches drew hordes of tourists from China and Russia during the warmer months, and the city earned the reputation as China’s finest. Then Bo’s successor, Xia Deren, decided to turn the tourist haven into northern China’s petrochemical capital, and it was all downhill from there. Over the past five years, the city has dealt with huge oil leaks, massive industrial explosions, and all seafood coming out of its surrounding waters is polluted. Mixing tourism and petroleum is a certain recipe for disaster, especially in China.
The #2 contributor to Yunnan’s economy is tourism (falling behind the declining tobacco industry) and most tourists to Yunnan pass through the City of Eternal Spring, Kunming’s other name. Long known for its pristine blue skies, year-round Mediterranean-esque climate, and clean air, the city offers respite to those who visit from the smog-choked skies of China’s north. But like Dalian, quality of life in Kunming may be on the down turn with the reshuffling of Kunming’s economy. Yunnan itself is not well endowed in oil or natural gas, but soon a 2800km pipeline will be completed to send natural gas and crude oil from Myanmar’s coast into China. The terminus of this USD 2.5bn state sponsored project is located in Anning’s Caopu Industrial zone – Kunming’s backyard.
At 2:15pm protesters rolled out another long banner, this time white with black letters. The police, who earlier voiced that the red banner was too provocative, sent a small troop to inspect the white banner which read “Give me back beautiful Kunming! We want to survive! We want to be healthy! PX project, get out of Kunming!” Protesters rushed to engage with the police, asking whether or not the banner passed muster. With a supportive and encouraging nod from a police captain, the crowd burst into applause and paraded the banner around the square. Shortly afterward, more than 150 policemen quietly moved in to encircle the protest zone.
Protesters and onlookers were free to move in and out of the zone brushing shoulders with the police forces – at this point the zone was still entirely porous. The banner carriers caught wind of the security force’s change in tactics and smoothly marched straight through the line of police. The police moved away without resistance only to regain formation after the parade passed through. At this point, approximately one hour into the protest, it was clear that as long as the crowd and police worked in tandem to preserve a non-violent and non-antagonistic atmosphere, this protest would go off without a hitch.
From 2:30pm to 3:30pm, the high point of the protest, approximately 2000 people gathered inside of the protest zone now clearly demarcated by a ring of police. Around 3:00pm, the police changed tactics once again to discourage newcomers from entering the zone. I saw a policeman turn away a woman holding her toddler using polite and civil communication tactics. At times, new groups of protesters broke through the lines greeted by cheers. Chanting continued, banners and posters paraded the inner perimeter. Volunteers passed out bottles of water and media created spaces for photo opportunities. A five-year old child seized the moment and by holding high a “No PX” poster, became an instant media star.
At two-plus hours, the demonstration peaked. People who came to get out their message did just that. They successfully gained media coverage and reached a goal of pulling off the city’s first large-scale protest in a major commercial area in recent memory. By 4pm the police lines were once again entirely porous and the protest zone looked much like it did when it started – four teach-in areas with core crowds of 50 to 100. Xinhua news service reported on the protest along with local Kunming and Yunnan media outlets. However, the day after, with exception of the Xinhua report, all other domestic Chinese news outlets pulled their reports and links to most reports on Chinese language websites have been blocked. The BBC, AP, Reuters, and Hong Kong’s Phoenix media all ran stories on the protest.
Some media outlets reported cell phone service disruption at the protest zone. I personally did not experience this. No organization or local NGO announced themselves as the protest organizer and no names of organizations have been named by media outlets. At the same time, media reports have given very little credit to the protesters for maintaining civility (not a guarantee for Chinese demonstrations) and to the police force for patiently allowing (and thus softly promoting the demonstration). After all, Kunming’s security forces have to breathe the city’s air just the same as anyone.
Protesters are awaiting public announcement from the city or provincial government on the status of the PX plant. They are calling for greater transparency in the approval process and disclosure of the project’s environmental assessment. Until these results are delivered, this issue is likely to gain momentum among Kunming’s citizens making the 5/4 protest the first of many. These protests could also disrupt the upcoming China-South Asia Expo – a major showcase trade fair for Kunming that attracts attendees from around the globe. The China-South Asia Expo runs from June 6-10.