Shifang Plant Cancelled, Protesters Released

The planned copper plant in Sichuan Province over which protesters and riot police clashed earlier this week has been cancelled, and those detained during the confrontation released. From Keith Bradsher at The New York Times:

Large and sometimes violent demonstrations against the planned construction of one of the largest copper smelting complexes on earth prompted local officials in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province to continue backpedaling furiously on Wednesday. The local government of Shifang, the planned site of the smelter, announced in a statement that the construction of the $1.6 billion complex had not only been suspended but also permanently canceled.

The smelter was supposed to be the centerpiece of a planned economic revitalization of an area devastated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, through the creation of thousands of construction jobs at a time when the overall Chinese economy is suffering a sharp slowdown.

A police official in Shifang said in a telephone interview that everyone detained in the protests had been released. The police acted after a crowd estimated by local residents in the tens of thousands defied the police and assembled Tuesday evening to demand the release of dozens of students jailed in the protests on Sunday and Monday.

Suspicion and resentment still linger, however. From Reuters:

“People are still waiting to see if the government follows through on its promise not to build the plant,” said the man. “There will be more protests if we are not convinced.”

[…] Despite the dual concessions, some Chinese called for the punishment of officials responsible for the violent crackdown. An 18-year-old resident told Reuters by telephone on Tuesday the police had beaten protesters the previous night.

“What are we going to do about the bastards who used violence on innocent people?” wrote a microblogger.

A Global Times editorial defended the need for heavy industrial projects like the one at the centre of the dispute, but urged local governments to gain public backing before pushing ahead, warning that “what happened in Shifang should never be repeated.”

China does need petrochemical plants and molybdenum copper projects. As a densely populated country with many underdeveloped areas, China has to bear the cost of undertaking tiring and environmentally risky industries that many developed countries won’t go near.

It is in such circumstances that local governments should earnestly deal with every single industrial project that carries environmental concerns. They should tell the truth to the public, rather than harbor the illusion that public opinion can be controlled when it comes to environmental issues.

Projects like the plant in Shifang can bring jobs and revenues, and they are not unattractive at all to a rational public. It is very normal that the project leads to some environmental worries and even opposition. Facing up to this can prompt local authorities to raise environmental protection standards. From a macro perspective, Chinese society will ultimately accept these projects while coming up with methods to stem their risks.

At China Real Time Report, Russell Leigh Moses took a relatively sympathetic tone, arguing that local officials are caught between conflicting pressures and messages from their superiors

Local Communist Party leaders are struggling to be both powerful and popular, responsible for keeping the local economy humming and unemployment low. They have to convince communities that local economic development will not harm the environment or public health.

But these cadres also recognize that economic growth in their area depends on keeping connections with industries that might pollute–that the path to promotion in China continues to depend largely on bringing in the goods and cementing stronger relationships with other officials, who can protect you if protests do break out and blame is cast.

And all the while, officials are being told to do all that and to resist the temptations of corruption.

So it’s not surprising that cadres sometimes get policies wrong, as they seem to have done in Shifang.

Also at China Real Time Report, Liyan Qi pointed out Tuesday’s 10% jump in shares of Chenguang Biotech, whose products include “the hot stuff” used to make tear gas. Weibo users suggested that the rise may have been fuelled by the Shifang clashes. Whatever the truth of the matter, the company’s shares have drifted back towards their pre-protest price since the violence ended.

See also CDT’s translation of a Han Han blog post, ‘The Liberation of Shifang’, in which he attacks officials’ heavy-handed response and willingness to promote polluting industries from whose effects they will largely be sheltered; China Media Project’s compilation of censored weibo posts related to the protests; Ministry of Tofu’s round-up of photos and translated weibo comments; and a CNN report including footage of the crackdown from several viewpoints: