Chinese environmental protesters take to the streets

Protests of unprecedented scale have been taking place in China against rapid and deadly environmental destruction. A new youth movement is taking to the streets and demanding change. Sam Geall reports

“We don’t need GDP. We need life.” Not a slogan from the anti-G8 protests in Germany this week, though it might have been. The words appear in the closing titles of an online video manifesto from China – part Lao Tzu, part Naomi Klein -- that may mark an unlikely shift in attitudes among the country’s youth, often portrayed as ruthlessly driven by the pursuit of wealth. 

You could be forgiven for finding this surprising. China’s first national plan on climate change, released on June 4, put the country’s remarkable economic growth firmly ahead of environmental concerns – eschewing curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions in favour of increased energy efficiency for the country’s rapidly expanding industry. China’s population want to develop without criticism – and without limits -- say the policy’s defenders. And few would find grounds to dispute it, were it not for the appearance of a video such as this, which was made as part of China’s burgeoning “antiPX” movement.

When the authorities in the city of Xiamen (also known as Amoy) announced they were halting construction on a large petrochemical plant on May 30, it followed a sustained, furious text message and internet offensive in the southeast China port city. Type “antiPX” into a search engine in the UK and you uncover a plethora of messages from the campaign against the factory, slated to be built seven kilometres from the city, which would produce paraxylene (PX), a chemical used in the manufacture of polyester – and a central nervous system depressant that can be fatal in high concentrations.

But search the term in China and you may only see the frequently inaccessible traces of myriad shifting blogs and blocked chatrooms, as the internet censors of China’s “Great Firewall” rush to catch up with the increasingly networked protesters – who spread news of upcoming protests by SMS, Twitter updates and online bulletin boards. One of the few reports in China’s state media said nearly a million text messages had been sent demanding the government renounce the project.

The almost unending litany of environmental accidents is a startling underside of China’s breakneck growth, with one water pollution incident every two to three days, according to the country’s official environmental watchdog. And the incident in Xiamen would hardly have been remarkable, if it was not for one thing: that the protests refused to stop. On June 1, a large street protest was held in the seaside city, which won an environmental award from UN-HABITAT in 2004, with protestors turning out wearing the yellow ribbons that have been adopted as symbols of the campaign. One of the demonstrators told me in an email why she had attended the demonstration: “Most of the protestors are the ordinary residents in Xiamen like me. We just have a very simple aim: we want to have a healthy living environment for our family, for our children, for ourselves.”

But why did they continue to protest, even after construction was suspended on the project? Her reply was unequivocal. “What's the meaning of suspending? Suspending is not stopping… Maybe when not so many people are concerned, this project will start again.”

A Beijing-based journalist, who chose to remain anonymous, agreed. She said that there was a time-honoured government formula for unpopular plans such as this. “Suspending the project means that the project will perhaps start again after a period of time - without any real improvement - but some symbolic certificates.”

Local newspapers, bloggers, voluntary organisations and student groups have been at the frontlines of the battle against China’s environmental crisis in recent years, exposing corrupt local government officials, who are often fingered for their collusion with polluting companies. And while these campaigns can sometimes garner support from state media and even central government bodies, these protests will not. Why? Because the Taiwan-invested PX project was approved by one of China’s highest planning bodies, the National Development and Reform Commission. Hence a government eager to save face – and willing to roll out the “Great Firewall” and attempt to silence the criticism.

It is significant that the protestors were not only willing to take on central government and organise despite a media blackout – but they are also joining up their campaign with others. On the same day that demonstrators turned out on the streets of Xiamen, officials were reassuring residents in the east China city of Wuxi that a lurid green algae bloom in nearby Taihu Lake, China’s third largest lake, was being cleaned up. This came on the heels of an outcry by angry residents, concerned when their drinking water began to stink and run thick and green. An outcry that was publicised through the same bulletin boards as the antiPX protests, and the same video that cast doubts on China’s GDP growth.

So are some of China’s citizens turning against a conventional model of economic growth? Maybe only on the fringes, but it is clear that there are many who would like to see the country adopt a healthier, cleaner model of development. This project will bring 800 hundred million yuan for Xiamen,” said the June 1 protestor. “This is not a small amount for anybody. But could the money buy us life and health?”

Sam Geall is a London-based writer and editor with special interests in China and environmental issues

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2007

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