Kunming and the Rising Tide of Environmental Protest

The East by Southeast blog has posted a detailed account of Thursday’s protests in Kunming over the planned PetroChina oil refinery and reported paraxylene (PX) plant. The account describes how the protests switched focus midway through from just opposing the PX plant to broader opposition to the entire oil refinery:

Justice Gate sits at the intersection of Renmin Road (People’s Road) one of Kunming’s busiest thoroughfares. Large shopping malls sit across the intersection and a pedestrian commercial street leads to the site of the 5/4 protest. The police forces were lax in allowing the group to migrate southward to the gate, after all, it led the protest away from the government headquarters, but they were determined to not allow the crowd to shut down traffic at the Renmin Road. A human wall of police officers five-thick formed to prevent the mass from breaking through the gate. Underneath the shade of the great oak trees, the protester’s energy seemed to stall out. New tactics like singing the Chinese national anthem with the words “Rise Up! Rise Up!” “Forward on! Forward on!” reinvigorated the group. Elderly women sang Red Songs from revolutions soon to be forgotten. Outside of the gate, the blazing sun lighting up the intersection provided contrast to the shaded area occupied by the protesters.

It was at this moment that the movement changed. No longer were anti-PX slogans being shouted – the crowd shifted to “Oil Refinery Get out of Kunming!” Over and over. One woman shouted in Kunming’s local dialect, “Rise up Kunmingers! Rise up Yunnanese!” and the mass movement discovered a new slogan that hit very close to home. A new file of police rushed to prevent protesters from breaking out into the square, but their efforts were of no use. At 12:00pm the protesters broke through the police wall and shut down the busy intersection. Traffic going both ways on busy Renmin road reached a standstill. Storefront owners rushed out to see what was going on. Crowds gathered on shopping mall balconies to cheer on protesters and take photos. The movement had emerged from the darkness into the light and gathered new steam.

An article in the Guardian looks at the demonstrations as part of a rising tide of environmental protest in China:

The Chinese public are becoming increasing concerned about the state of their local environment and up to 80% believe that environmental protection should be a higher priority than economic development, according to a new survey. The survey, carried out by the Public Opinion Research Centre in collaboration with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, measured the public’s attitudes towards environmental protection and how they rate the government’s performance.

Such protests appear to be often tolerated by the authorities and, like the Shanghai protests, are sometimes successful in their goals. Last October, a week-long series of protests in Ningbo in eastern China by thousands of residents was sucessful in stopping work on an oil and petrochemical complex.

The frequency of protests is rising as China’s increasingly affluent and middle-class society becomes more aware of environmental issues. The number of rose by 120% from 2010 to 2011, according to Yang Chaofei, the vice-chairman of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences.

Yang a told a lecture organised by the Standing Committee of the National’s People’s Congress on the social impact of environmental problems that the number of environmental ‘mass incidents’ has grown an average of 29% annually from 1996 to 2011. He said that the number of incidents which involve concerns about dangerous chemicals and heavy metal pollution have risen since 2010. [Source]

Read more about the Kunming protests via CDT.

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