Anatomy of Two Protests: Kunming vs. Chengdu

East by Southeast, a new group blog on “China’s footprint in Southeast Asia and […] the big questions surrounding China’s global rise“, has posted a detailed account of Saturday’s peaceful PX protests in Kunming, praising the conduct of both protesters and police:

At 2:15pm protesters rolled out another long banner, this time white with black letters. The police, who earlier voiced that the red banner [reading “Anning oil refinery, don’t put our home into environmental hell!”] was too provocative, sent a small troop to inspect the white banner which read “Give me back beautiful Kunming! We want to survive! We want to be healthy! PX project, get out of Kunming!” Protesters rushed to engage with the police, asking whether or not the banner passed muster. With a supportive and encouraging nod from a police captain, the crowd burst into applause and paraded the banner around the square. […]

[…] Some media outlets reported cell phone service disruption at the protest zone. I personally did not experience this. No organization or local NGO announced themselves as the protest organizer and no names of organizations have been named by media outlets. At the same time, media reports have given very little credit to the protesters for maintaining civility (not a guarantee for Chinese demonstrations) and to the police force for patiently allowing (and thus softly promoting the demonstration). After all, Kunming’s security forces have to breathe the city’s air just the same as anyone.

Protesters are awaiting public announcement from the city or provincial government on the status of the PX plant. They are calling for greater transparency in the approval process and disclosure of the project’s environmental assessment. Until these results are delivered, this issue is likely to gain momentum among Kunming’s citizens making the 5/4 protest the first of many. […]

In contrast with the Kunming demonstration, planned protests in Chengdu on the same day were met with a obstructive tactics such as a “weekend-long earthquake drill” and—as NPR’s Louisa Lim reported—a rescheduled weekend:

The tentacles of the stability-maintenance machine go deep, and all of them swung into action in Chengdu. A woman who’d forwarded a message about the protest on social media was forced to apologize on television earlier in the week. At least 10 dissidents were put under house arrest or forced to “go on holiday,” according to a local human rights website. Meanwhile, employees at state-run work units were warned that they’d be sacked if they protested.

Then there was an enormous leafleting campaign. Households received letters from the government calling for “everyone to stand firm and not believe rumors, and not participate [in protests] in order to prevent people with other motives from seizing this opportunity to create turmoil.” The letters had the unintended effect of bringing the Pengzhou plant to the attention of those who hadn’t already heard about it, creating an even greater groundswell of suppressed discontent.

[…] Since any attempt to protest would clearly have been unwise, some citizens protested in silence by wearing facemasks. Given the levels of pollution, however, this was ineffective. Others commented wryly that the police show of force represented a new “Chengdu model” of dissent, where the actual marching had been outsourced to the security forces.

An editorial in the state-owned Global Times argued that heavy industry projects are economically necessary, but that trying to brush public concerns aside is the wrong approach:

China’s economic development is inseparable from the development of heavy chemical projects. However, the reality is that residents do not want to pay for China’s overall situation at the price of their living environment.

Questions over the development of heavy chemical projects are mainly discussed by local governments and enterprises. Governments have good intentions, with the goals of developing the economy and creating employment, while the public focuses on environmental situation. It has become a stalemate.

To break through this deadlock, local governments should make ordinary people’s environmental anxieties their first concern. They should represent ordinary people’s ecological and comprehensive interests and strive for these interests. Problems will be solved in a much more orderly and rational manner if governments are trusted by public in this regard.

[…] Hanging on to outdated social governance approaches will only make things worse. There is always a way out for heavy chemical projects. Current problems come from the methods of dealing with them.

Also at Global Times, a report on the protests by Chang Meng and Duan Wuning stressed the importance of timely transparency surrounding industrial projects:

“PX is a basic petrochemical raw material and is safe if proper protocols are followed. People are scared because there is a lack of access to information or participation in the projects,” Jin Yong, a leading petrochemical expert at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times.

[…] Information disclosure for both projects was opaque and came out late under public pressure.

“We met with the project committee in April, which was the first public communication event after the construction for two years,” a staffer of Green Kunming, a local environmental NGO, told the Global Times.

“Public rights to information access, participation in environmental policies and judicial remedies are key to solving these situations and preventing the EIA from being manipulated by developers and officials,” Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Global Times.