When the wind blows in one Shanghai suburb, residents can smell the stench rising from a towering garbage dump, feared to be so harmful it can make people vomit and cause birth defects.
Now residents of Songjiang District are raising a stink about the future of the landfill, one of a series of recent protests across China as people hold the government more accountable for health and environmental problems.
“All the garbage in Songjiang comes here,” said Chen Chunhui, who grew up nearby.
“This is a residential district, so people are making a fuss. They say if you smell it, your baby will be a freak,” he added.
Hundreds took to the streets in late May and dozens again early last month to oppose the landfill and a planned garbage incinerator, which officials had proposed to solve the festering problem.
The May protest is believed to be Shanghai’s largest since 2008, when hundreds marched against an extension of the city’s high-speed “maglev” train line, prompting the government to suspend the project indefinitely.
The Songjiang protesters — who are largely young, educated and not necessarily Shanghai natives — claim the incinerator would spew dangerous toxins and slammed the local government’s lack of transparency on the project.
Government officials announced in May that Songjiang would build the 250 million yuan (US$40 million) incinerator on its current -landfill site as the population swells.
However, residents claim the incinerator could affect the health of hundreds of thousands of people and called for the landfill, which towers up to 17m and covers an area the size of a football field, to be moved.
Environmental pollution and perceived health threats are sparking protests elsewhere in China, helped by social media which allows organizers to publicize their causes and rally others despite tight government control.
Last year, thousands of protesters halted production at a polluting solar panel factory in the eastern city of Haining, while residents in the northeastern city of Dalian stopped a planned petrochemical plant.
Earlier this month in Sichuan Province, hundreds of protesters clashed with police over a planned metals plant in Shifang city and forced the project to be scrapped.
“This nascent urban middle class is increasingly unwilling to accept perceived threats to their quality of life, so you are having a greater tendency for people to take to the streets,” said Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
China had an estimated 180,000 protests in 2010 and the numbers have risen steadily since the 1990s, according to estimates by sociology professor Sun Liping (孫立平) of Tsinghua University in Beijing.
The government has grown more sophisticated in handling them since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, when soldiers fired on -protesters, Kine said.
However, the government still targets protest leaders, seeking to dissuade them using soft and hard tactics, he added.
In the Songjiang case, Shanghai authorities have allowed the protests to take place, amid a massive police presence, but have not sought to clear away demonstrators with mass detentions.
In the May demonstration, police blocked protesters from marching to the nearby university district, fearing greater student participation.
In the smaller protest last month, organizers held a dialogue with authorities, which allowed the demonstration to take place as long as it remained orderly.