China Says Will Shut Plant as Thousands Protest

When Tropical Storm Muifa descended on China’s north-east last week, damage to dykes in Dalian sparked fears of leaks from a coastal chemical plant. The threat was averted, but thousands of local residents marched today, demanding that the plant be relocated. From Reuters:

In a rare concession, Dalian’s top official on Sunday “tried to appease the crowd by promising to move the polluting project out of the city,” Xinhua said, adding that there was no sign of the protest dispersing soon.

Protesters, including children, marched holding banners that declared: “I love Dalian and reject poison” and “return me my home and garden, get out PX, protect Dalian,” according to photographs posted on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter ….

“A poster was put on the Internet yesterday calling people to ‘stroll’ on Sunday morning starting from 10 a.m. on the People’s Square, near which the Dalian government is located,” a resident in Dalian, who declined to be named, told Reuters by telephone ….

Public distrust of the government mounted after Chinese media reported that the petrochemical plant might have been allowed to operate illegally months before it received mandatory environmental approval. According to Southern Metropolis News, the Fujia plant started full-scale production in June 2009, but it did not get the go-ahead from the Liaoning environmental protection bureau until April last year.

On Sunday evening, authorities announced the PX plant will be closed immediately, according to Reuters:

Authorities in northeastern China on Sunday ordered a petrochemical plant to be shut down immediately after thousands of people demonstrated, demanding the relocation of the factory at the center of a toxic spill scare, state media said.

Demonstrators in the port city of Dalian, in Liaoning province, faced down a wall of police in riot gear in front of the municipal government office. Minor scuffles broke out, although there was no report of injuries among the 12,000 protesters, state news agency Xinhua said.

The authorities also pledged to relocate the Fujia Chemical Plant, Xinhua said, citing a statement from the municipal committee of the Communist Party and the government. The report did not say where the plant is likely to move to.

Global Voices Online has collected a number of photos of the protest from Weibo; see also two aerial shots of the crowds [edit: and Wen Yunchao’s extensive gallery on Google+]. Reuters reported that Weibo searches for “Dalian” “PX” and other related terms were blocked, while reports on Twitter suggested that cell phone signals in the area were also being blocked [edit: voice calls could be made, but data networks were reportedly inaccessible]. Any Western criticism of these measures is likely to be met with references to David Cameron’s proposal to control riots by restricting social media access, and to the shutting-down of cellular phone signals on San Francisco’s BART transit system to disrupt protests, both on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, the South China Morning Post explored prospects for the plant’s relocation, which was already under consideration:

The PX plant would make history if it became the first large, operational petrochemical project to be relocated on the mainland.

But given the scale of the PX plant and growing environmental awareness, analysts said it could take a long time to find another site.

“It will be a real test for the Dalian authorities in the face of tough choices between economic growth and the public’s well-being,” Beijing-based environmentalist Ma Jun said.

However, he added that the relocation was unlikely to eliminate huge environmental risks posed by dozens of other large petrochemical plants in the same industrial zone in the city’s eastern suburbs.

Analysts noted that the Dalian government could face tough questions about who should pay for the relocation and who should be held responsible for building the PX project in the first place.

The sensitivity of the threatened leak was no doubt heightened by the large oil spill in Dalian which followed a pipeline explosion last summer. The disaster led to a lengthy clean-up operation in which one local firefighter drowned in oil.

In a landmark case in 2007, protests forced the relocation of a planned PX plant in Xiamen.

More photos and video on CDT Chinese here, and here.