Pipeline Project Cancelled After Protests (Updated)

Riots broke out in the Jiangsu city of Qidong on Saturday during protests against a pipeline which locals feared would pollute the nearby coastline. From Peter Parks at AFP:

Following the clashes, the local police said in their microblog that the pipeline from the paper mill, which belongs to Japanese company Oji Paper, would be “permanently closed” and called on the demonstrators to go home.

[… A protester named ] Qin said there were 50,000 demonstrators, while a microblogger using the name Qidong Longhuisheng estimated numbers at 100,000.

“There are people everywhere, on walls, cars, rooftops, in streets,” said another microblog user writing under the name Jiaojiaotaotailang, adding that “the air is filled with the smell of alcohol, and there are sounds of breaking glass”.

Searches including “Qidong” were blocked Saturday on Sina Weibo, which has more than 250 million subscribers.

On Twitter, NPR’s Louisa Lim recounted weibo reports that the Qidong mayor and another official had been stripped naked (or at least shirtless) by protestors. Despite this, and in contrast with recent protests in Shifang, police appear so far to have reacted with considerable restraint [See update below]. This has been commended by some netizens, including one quoted by Offbeat China:

“[The mayor] didn’t call for tear gas or tanks to crack down the protesters. It’s an improvement. This mayor deserves some applause. Even better, he immediately announced that the project was permanently canceled.”

A local resident told Global Times on Thursday, however, that efforts to resolve the situation by other means had already proven unsuccessful:

“We have applied for a protest permit but the local government has refused to approve it. We will still walk the streets to express our opinion,” Gu [Bin] said, adding that the government has also refused repeated request to make public the environmental assessment report.

[…] “We have been demanding an answer for three years but every effort ended in vain. We won’t believe the government until they make clear what measures they will take to stop pollution from harming our health,” Gu said in an interview on Thursday.

Offbeat China’s post also includes photos of the crowds, police, ransacked offices, an overturned police car and the unclothed mayor; more photos can be found at QQ.com and at CDT Chinese. See more on the trend of environmental protests in China, including Han Han’s take on ‘The Liberation of Shifang’, via CDT.

[Updated at 16:40 PST]: At The New York Times, Jane Perlez explains the Qidong protests’ context:

The city is part of the vast Yangtze Delta region that has been an engine of China’s manufacturing power in the past decade.

Last year, Qidong was connected to Shanghai by a nearly 40-mile-long bridge, making the local economic enterprise zone, established by the local government to attract business, even more appealing to investors.

One of the most profitable industries in Qidong is the exporting of fish, including processed lobster and shrimp, to the United States. The city boasts freezers certified by the European Union for the export of fish to Europe.

Some of the protesters argued that the wastewater plant would discharge effluent into the sea and harm the fishing industry. But most seemed to be concerned about drinking water.

Reports circulated on Saturday evening of a crackdown in Qidong. A dramatic photograph by the AP’s Eugene Hoshiko showed massed riot police in place of the conventionally uniformed officers pictured earlier in the day. These armoured police reportedly arrived late on Saturday to guard government offices.

At TIME, Austin Ramzy suggested that the violence could prompt harsher responses to future protests elsewhere, even as the pipeline’s cancellation encourages others to take their complaints to the streets.

The success in blocking the pipeline project in Qidong will undoubtedly inspire further environmental protests around the country, just as the success of the Shifang protest earlier this month inspired demonstrators in Qidong. But the scenes of violence and officials humiliated and injured in the streets could also heighten authorities’ fears of activism, and may lead to tough measures to dampen future protests.

“Whenever you have any violent confrontations, people may feel the repercussions politically,” says Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago. “But I do think it will stimulate reflection in terms of public policy making, particularly for those kinds of projects that affect many people, to allow for public comment. Having public participation is extremely important, and things would have not have gone this far in Qidong if they had done so.”

Having failed to satisfy the public through engagement, the local government instead tried to head off the protests with mass text messaging. (Their systems for this are apparently more advanced than the Beijing Meteorological Bureau’s.) Tea Leaf Nation translated some of these warning messages:

“Dear parents, after receiving instructions from superiors, we ask that, in order to maintain a harmonious and stable environment in Qidong, you do not organize, participate in, support or stand around to watch the group protests that have no permission from the government. We ask this so that you do not suffer any unnecessary harm! We ask that you cooperate! After you receive this please respond promptly with ‘Child’s name+Name of guardian+Acknowledgement+Guarantee to not organize, participate in, support or stand around to watch.’ We thank you for your understanding of our work.”

“All Students: We hope that during the summer you will respect and follow the law, obey traffic regulations, watch out for your personal safety, finish your summer schoolwork; with regard to that certain movement organized by society persons, strictly adopt the stance of not being curious, not participating, not supporting, not standing around to watch. Have a cultured, safe and meaningful summer vacation. Zhegui [Middle] School Administration.”

Local authorities have not received all the blame, however. Those of the protesters who turned to violence and vandalism have prompted deep unease among observers. Jian Shuo Wang, for example, wrote on Weibo (via Bill Bishop at Sinocism):

Seeing the development of the situation today, felt the pain. We crossed the line, seriously crossed the line, and started a bad beginning, not as restrained as Xiamen [the site of protests against a PX plant in 2007]. If you use violence to get what you want, you will get addicted to violence. Other party’s wrong deed is not the reason of your own wrong deed. Right goal always cannot prove the rightness of process. If we continue to follow the current thinking too far, China may enter into the next terrible violence-ruled circle.

Here is a boxun video on Liveleak:

See also a large collection of photos from Qidong taken by netizens and collected by CDT Chinese.