A Chinese city, a massive environmental protest, and a sudden retreat by the authorities. The pattern has repeated itself so many times in recent months that it seems only a matter of time before it happens again. The latest iteration was in the coastal city of Ningbo, where residents rallied in recent days to oppose the expansion of a plant that produces paraxylene (PX), a potentially hazardous chemical used in the production of plastics and polyester. Protesters organized using microblogs and other social media and turned out over several days in demonstrations of people power that sometimes met with violent confrontations with police. On Sunday, the local government announced it would block the extension to the Sinopec petrochemical plant in the city’s Zhenhai district pending a reworking of “scientific proof,” and that the PX project that was the target of protesters ire would not be approved.
The Ningbo protest follows a growing chain of similar environmental standoffs in China. One of the first prominent ‘not in my backyard,’ or NIMBY, protests was also against a PX project, in the southeastern coastal city of Xiamen, in 2007. Last year, another PX project in the northeastern port of Dalian was targeted amid fears that it was susceptible to typhoons. This summer, protesters mobilized against plans to build a wastewater pipeline from a Japanese run paper mill near Shanghai through the city of Qidong. Those movements, which included large numbers of Internet savvy middle class residents, were able to attract significant domestic and foreign interest online. Perhaps more significant than the NIMBY protests in coastal metropolises is the expansion to the Chinese interior, where residents are generally poorer and local governments more dependent on the tax revenues from large industrial projects. In July, the city of Shifang in southwestern Sichuan province said it would halt a copper and molybdenum plant after days of demonstrations and clashes with police.
The 2007 Xiamen protest and a 2008 movement against the expansion of a maglev train line in Shanghai took months before authorities backed down. In recent protests local governments, including Ningbo, have capitulated in a matter of days, a sign of the growing emphasis placed on “stability management.” The desire to end public protest is particularly strong now, just days ahead of the start of the Communist Party’s 18 National Congress, which will begin the transition to a new generation of political leadership. Last week police detained 51 people during the protests, and the Ningbo government warned Monday that further protests without official permission were illegal.
Although local governments have been quick to back down in response to recent protests, they have also been slow to meet demonstrators’ demands. In Dalian, for instance, the petrochemical plant that angered residents last year has quietly resumed production, CNN reported in January. The expansion of Sinopec’s Zhenhai plant was valued at $8.8 billion, the state-run Xinhua News Service reported, and the local government will be under pressure to find a way for at least some of that investment to go ahead. “You can’t easily say that Ningbo is a victory,” the author and activist Li Chengpeng wrote on Sina Weibo, “because in Dalian they’ve resumed production.”