After word spread about an environmental protest that was planned for Saturday in Chengdu, China, drugstores and printing shops were ordered to report anyone making certain purchases. Microbloggers say government fliers urged people not to demonstrate, and schools were told to stay open to keep students on campus.
And when Saturday came, thousands of police officers and security staff were on Chengdu’s streets, some of them making a tight ring around a major public square. A weekend-long earthquake drill, officials said, but many residents did not believe it. They said city officials pre-emptively quashed the protest over a petrochemical plant that a powerful state-owned enterprise is building about 40km northwest of Chengdu.
“What do they fear?” asked local resident Tina Zhong, contacted via China’s social media. “If the government can share more information, the public would be less distrusting.”
While China punishes political dissent aggressively, it has been somewhat more tolerant of environmental complaints. The public, especially members of China’s rising middle class, have become more outspoken against environmentally risky plants, and several mass protests against such projects turned violent last year, before local governments agreed to scrap the plans.
In the city of Qidong, protesters against a wastewater discharge project last year even briefly occupied the local government compound and stripped a high-ranking official half-naked.
The reaction to the protest plans in Chengdu raises questions about whether China is getting tougher on dissent over environmental issues, though a protest on Saturday in southern China saw less heavy-handed government tactics.
Hundreds of people — many wearing face masks — gathered in Kunming to protest a planned refinery project in the area. The demonstrators demanded information transparency and that public health be safeguarded.
That project and the plant near Chengdu are owned by PetroChina, the country’s largest oil and gas producer. The plant being built northwest of Chengdu in Pengzhou is expected to produce 9.1 million tonnes of refined oil and 726,000 tonnes of ethylene per year.
Residents say they are worried the plant would pollute the air and water, and question why the plant is being built in a region prone to earthquakes. Pengzhou is in the same fault zone as the 2008 Wenchuan quake that left 90,000 people dead or missing, and for an earthquake last month that killed at least 196 people.
In Chengdu, local authorities have been taking pre-emptive measures to stop local residents from taking to the street.
At least one neighborhood police station has asked drugstores to report anyone buying large quantities of face masks, and for printing services to inform police immediately of those printing or photocopying materials with phrases such as “Petro Project,” “Environmental Protection,” “Personal Health” and “Pengzhou.”
The police demand that personal identity numbers and telephone numbers of the customers be collected and reported. A woman who answered the telephone at the police station said the notice was issued in accordance with an order from the municipal government and its public security bureau. Officials contacted in the city government said they were unclear about the issue.
Eight Chinese microbloggers contacted through private message also said the city government has been disseminating fliers urging its residents not to take part in any protest to preserve the city’s stability — sometimes forcing signatures — and that several junior-high and high schools, as well as colleges, were asked to hold classes to keep the students on campus on Saturday. Most of the microbloggers refused to give their names, saying they feared how government officials would respond.