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Campaigners in China challenge authorities over environmental impact of planned petrochemical plant

Fears over proposed refinery in southern city of Kunming attracts thousands of protesters

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the southern Chinese city of Kunming to voice their fears over the environmental impact of a planned petrochemical plant – highlighting the increasing willingness of the country’s emerging middle class to challenge authorities.

In the second protest this month against the planned plant, more than 2,000 people gathered outside the Yunnan provincial government headquarters to demand greater transparency about the environmental risks the 20 billion yuan (£2bn) facility – which will produce gasoline and petrochemicals such as paraxylene (PX), used in making fabrics and plastic bottles – may pose. “We cherish blue skies and white clouds, as well as good air,” said one Kunming resident at the protest who gave her surname as Liu. “If you want to build a refinery… we resolutely oppose it.”

Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan province, is known as the “spring city” and has one of the most pleasant climates in China. But rapid development in recent years has seen the city transformed into a major metropolis.

The planned petrochemical plant, which would be built about 18 miles outside the city centre, would annually produce 500,000 tonnes of PX, a suspected carcinogen, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper. Local residents fear the plant would pollute the city’s air and water supplies. 

The gathering was largely peaceful, though there were minor scuffles with police. Witnesses said at least two people were briefly detained, although, in a relatively rare show of tolerance, police did not try to intervene to stop the protest. The approach contrasted to another protest against a petrochemical plant earlier this month in the city of Chengdu, when police flooded the streets to prevent the demonstration from going ahead.

In the wake of the first Kunming demonstration on 4 May, local government officials and the powerful state-controlled PetroChina Co (which has proposed the plant), held a series of public meetings and pledged that operations at the refinery would be environmentally sound. However, officials have also said the project’s environmental evaluation report will remain confidential.

Steve Tsang, of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, believes the protests highlight the rising assertiveness of China’s middle class, their environmental awareness, and their lack of trust in the authorities after a series of development-at-all-costs projects which have led to environmental scandals over the past decade.

“The protesters do not believe that the environmental downside will be handled properly, but they are also financially comfortable enough to accept the economic costs to the city/region for rejecting a major industrial facility that can provide considerable local employment opportunities,” he said.

“[The protesters] are not easy for the government to handle, as overt and excessive use of force cannot be used without images being beamed across the country and the rest of the world quickly,” he said.

Social activist, Hu Jia, said local governments are more willing to allow PX plants to be opened in their regions because they mean big revenues for local government coffers.

“However, once the officials have made their money, they can leave their jobs, but people can’t easily move elsewhere,” Mr Hu told Voice of America.