Mixed signals and smokescreens: Kunming’s government responds to Anti-PX protests

On Saturday, 5/11 anyone with cellular service registered to the Kunming municipality received two brief text messages concerning the city’s recent anti-PX protests.  Sent from the Kunming’s official propaganda offices, the messages when read separately state the key decision makers deciding the fate of the polluting PX plant are willing to increase transparency and engage with the public on this issue. However, when read together, the messages send mixed signals and suggest decision makers are creating a smoke-screen to stem a planned protest scheduled for later this week and buy time for the safe passage of the PX plant.

The first text message reads:

“Kunming Mayor Li Wenrong expresses that after the ‘By-products projects attached to the PetroChina Oil refinery feasibility study’ is finished at the end of July, he will use democratic decision making processes and stringently act on this issue in accordance to the needs of majority of the masses.”

This message suggests the mayor could follow China’s environmental law by conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) on the PX plant (the by-product project he mentions) and releasing the findings to the public.  It also suggests he could hold a public hearing before approval for the PX project is granted – another legal requirement.  Both of these measures were directly demanded at last week’s protests attended by more than 2000 participants in downtown Kunming, so perhaps the city government is willing to play ball AND more importantly,  follow the law.

The second text message reads:

“The CEO of Yunnan PetroChina expresses that the Kunming Anning Oil Refinery project is a fuel processing plant that producing State 5 Grade gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.  This project will not include PX processing equipment and will not produce PX.”

Read separately, this message suggests the issue has concluded, and Kunmingers can put down their protest posters.  With no PX plant in the works, why show up for this week’s protest, right?

But if this is true, then what are the “by-products projects attached to the PetroChina refinery” that the Kunming mayor refers to above?  And if the city is still interested in a PX plant, then who will build it?

Enter Yunnan Yuntianhua, one of China’s largest and most powerful fertilizer and chemical processing firms.  Yuntianhua, a 20bn RMB (3.4bn USD) state-owned enterprise listed on the Shanghai stock exchange, won the contract to process all waste and by-products of PetroChina’s Anning oil refinery according to a statement made by Li Junfa, an expert on China’s chemical processing industry.

Li Junfa’s statement as well as the statements above from Kunming’s mayor and the PetroChina CEO came from a televised press conference aired on Yunnan Satellite TV last Friday evening, 5/10.  The 2.5 hour conference was edited down to a skeleton of 35 minutes, and its censorship has already gained criticism from Kunmingers watching this issue.

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PHOTO: Kunming mayor, Li Wenrong at the 5/10 press conference

PetroChina is washing its hands of PX, and public scrutiny of the PX plant has already shifted to Yuntianhua’s role.  Yuntianhua has yet to release a statement on its participation in the oil refinery’s sub-projects.

While these mixed signals will suggest to some that this has become a non-issue, the text messages and press conferences are part of a broader strategy focused on quelling any further organized protests in Kunming.

EbSE learned recently that one of the 5/4 protest organizers was successfully “convinced” by a visit last week from the local police not to participate in the upcoming protest. Also, in EbSE’s weekly digest posted on 5/10, a brief update included the date, time, and location of the next protest. Within thirty minutes, the entire site was blocked and only unblocked after EbSE deleted the information on the next protest. We assume the block was automatically triggered by key words in the sentence.

This past weekend the city government really stepped up pressure to discourage public participation in this week’s protest. Officials from Kunming’s 13 universities were unexpectedly called to work on Saturday for mandatory training on how to discourage their students from participating in public demonstrations. A document circulated at the training says that university staff are “not to speak of rumors, pass rumors, nor participate.” The document continues to read that “those who do participate in unauthorized public activities will be investigated and their superiors will be held responsible for their actions.”  This document is now being freely passed around China’s social media site Weixin.

It is common practice in China that school officials are responsible FOR the actions of their students instead of being responsible TO their students.

Word is also circulating on Weixin that all taxi companies in Kunming have forced their drivers to sign a statement promising to not go on strike on the day of the next protest and not to take customers to the designated protest site.  Taxi drivers who break this promise or refuse to sign will lose their business license according to reports.

Mayor Li, are these measures part of your democratic decision making processes?

Despite pressure, public response is mounting and the local government’s efforts to stem the next protest are only providing more publicity for it by drawing more attention to the protesters’ cause.  Organizers are passing messages through the social media sites Weixin and Weibo on how to prepare for the protest scheduled two days from now in front of the highest government administration complex in Yunnan (let’s see if that gets blocked).  Also on Kunming’s streets, EbSE is noticing more “No PX” stickers and posters attached to car doors and inside car windows.

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However, the sticker campaign has yet to hit critical mass – most stickers are published in English with “No PX” or “Keep Kunming Beautiful” as slogans.  If organizers are interested in gaining wide-spread local support, it may be a good idea to produce propaganda that locals can read.

Otherwise, the signals sent by organizers appear as cloudy as those issued by the city government.

EbSE will continue to cover this issue throughout the week.

Chinese language versions of the 5/11 text messages:

“昆明市市长李文荣表示,中石油炼油项目副产品配套项目待可研报告7月中下旬完成后,将走民主决策程序,严格按大多数群众意愿办事 (昆明市新闻办)”

“中石油云南石化总经理表示,昆明安宁炼化项目属染料型炼厂,生产国五标准汽油, 柴油,航空煤油;项目不含PX装置,不生产PX产品。”

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