Residents of an eastern Chinese city who have been protesting over a new chemical plant reacted warily yesterday to news the project would be halted, with some continuing to demonstrate.
Authorities in Ningbo City said late on Sunday that work on the 55.9 billion yuan (US$8.9 billion) oil refining and petrochemical complex would be called off after thousands of locals clashed with police in a week-long protest.
The demonstrations and apparent victory of local residents is the latest example of environmental activism stemming from public anger over pollution wrought by decades of rapid development.
Outside the Ningbo City Government offices yesterday, police sought to disperse a crowd of people still massing outside, though the gathering was peaceful, said a foreign journalist who was briefly detained by police.
Despite Beijing’s promise to halt the new plant by Chinese petrochemicals giant Sinopec, some Ningbo residents said they feared the city could later revive the project.
“Unfortunately, it is perhaps just a stalling tactic ... the government felt pressure and was eager to wind this matter up, so there’s no victory for us,” Sha Shi Di Sao Zi said on a microblog.
The protests came ahead of a once-in-a-decade Chinese Communist Party Congress starting on Nov. 8 at which new leaders will be selected. Ahead of the delicate handover, Chinese authorities are keen to present a show of harmony.
Some Internet users portrayed the standoff in Ningbo as a victory reflecting growing environmental awareness among Chinese people.
“Mighty Ningbo people, congratulations on your victory!” a netizen who gave the name Grail Tao Daowei said in a microblog posting.
An editorial in the state-run China Daily yesterday said a rising number of environmental-related protests showed the “obsession” of local officials with economic development.
“Too many local governments are still preoccupied with gross domestic product,” it said. “Some local leaders still need to acquaint themselves with the notion that residents’ rights to a healthy environment must be adequately respected.”
Ningbo’s Zhenhai District — the proposed site for the factory — said on Sunday it would “ban” production of paraxylene (PX), a petrochemical used for plastic bottles, which had been the focus of residents’ health fears.
The statement admitted for the first time that PX, which has been linked in some studies to a wide range of human health problems for those facing extended exposure, was going to be produced at the site.
An editorial in another state-run newspaper, the Global Times, urged the government to set up a more transparent system for approving projects, but said the fate of industrial plants should not be decided by protests.
“Some claim the people in Ningbo scored a victory,” said the newspaper, known for its nationalistic editorial stance. “But we hold that when deciding a heavy chemical project through such protests, there is no winner, but the whole country loses.”