Chinese Protest Environmental Problems

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.

The peaceful 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. Cellphone messages being sent countrywide Monday showed organizers were trying to publicize their cause across the vast sweep of China.

In addition, the kinds of health and environmental concerns expressed by the protesters are likely to grow across China as property ownership increases among the urban middle class, leading people to scrutinize the companies setting up shop in their backyards.

The protesters in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, walked calmly 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 national law that requires protesters to apply for a permit by saying they were only out for a “stroll.”

Police officials in Chengdu declined to comment on the march when reached by telephone.

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 petrochemical project 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 $5.5 billion project, approved last year, is expected to produce 800,000 tons of ethylene per year and refine 10 million tons of crude oil per year, according to a Web site dedicated to the project that was set up by the Pengzhou city government. Ethylene is widely used in the production of such goods as packaging and trash liners.

Repeated calls to the company set up by the joint venture, PetroChina Sichuan Petrochem Industry, went unanswered Monday. The project’s Web site said that $565 million of the total investment would be dedicated to environmental protection.

The march Sunday 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, The Chengdu Business News.

“The Sichuan refinery project will install advanced equipment, apply new techniques and improve environmental protection facilities with strict pollution prevention and risk control schemes,” the article said. “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 latest protest came at a time when the Chinese government and its policies are coming under growing international scrutiny. Anti- government demonstrations by Tibetans in March led to a government crackdown, which in turn has fueled criticism by human rights advocates and others outside China. The Olympic torch ran a gantlet of anti-China protests in foreign cities including London and Paris before arriving on the mainland Sunday.

The criticism of China has been met by a fervent wave of nationalism among Chinese both here and abroad, much of it organized by students denouncing the Western news media and calling for a boycott of Carrefour, the French supermarket chain.

But the protest in Chengdu has little to do with those events and has much more in common with urban grass-roots movements to protect the environment and people’s health that have been surprisingly successful in the past year or so.

Rural protests by farmers have taken place for years, with occasional heavy-handed suppression by the police. Much more rare, but growing in number, are street protests in large cities by educated, professional, middle-class Chinese.

The government has taken a softer approach to these, allowing them to run their course, even though the protesters are clearly marching without official permission.

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.