As I wrote in my previous post, the air in my office had been filled with news of the protest for the entire week. People around me were nervous about attending the protest, and pessimistic about what effect it might have.
The demand of the day was for the relocation of the Fujia Dahua Petrochemical Co. plant. The Fujia plant produces paraxylene, a toxic chemical used in polyester production. According to international environmental standards, the plant should be located much further from the city centre – but its location when largely unnoticed until this past Monday, when Typhoon Muifa broke a dike, threatened the plant and nearly caused what would have been a devastating chemical leak.
As the enormous attendance shows, this newly-discovered danger was an issue of huge importance to the people of Dalian. As one Chinese man interviewed by a Reuters editor explained,
“It’s for the next generation, our children … The government must be aware that children are the last hope for many Chinese parents. They will do anything against the government if they think their children cannot have a happy, healthy life.”
As Christina Larson mentioned on the Sinica podcast, the fear was spurred on by the government’s suppression of information. A lack of forthcoming information caused people to fear the worst about the risks of PX, and the worst about their government’s response to it.
The other reason that environmental issues can generate huge crowds is that they are one problem – like corruption – that the Chinese government is willing to admit to and tackle publicly. Officials admit there`s an issue there; so can the public.
Nevertheless, my friends`warnings and dire pronouncements had rattled me a little, and the anxiety only increased when my taxi had to stop due to roadblocks. Four blocks away from People’s Square, police officers gathered in enormous groups – planning to do what?
Then one of the police officers broke decorum and smiled broadly at me. “Hello!” he shouted, and his colleagues smiled to. My nervousness evaporated.
The police, as it turned out, were busy blocking traffic all over downtown. They had blocked some pedestrian routes around People’s Square (which was, it seemed, about crowd control than about actually blocking access). They also cut off traffic around Friendship Square, Zhongshan Square, and turned cars away from roads leading across the city to Xinghai Park.
This effectively cleared the city’s main artery of car traffic and swelled the protest, as those who may not even have planned to attend filled the emptied streets. Far from stopping the protest, as I initially suspected, the police were enabling it and making it grow.
Riot police had completely blocked off the northwest corner of the square. The people there, perhaps not realizing they could enter from the south side, began to push against the police. The police had batons, but never used them, even when people successfully pushed the way through. The crowd cheered whenever anyone ran through. “Aren’t you Dalianese?” one old man asked a policeman blocking his way.
“Are you nervous?” I asked the girl beside me. “A little,” she said. But in the crowd, there seemed to be one camera or cell phone for every person. The police may have been watching the people, but the crowd was watching right back, taking evidence. Then a police officer slapped someone who ran through the barrier. “They hit someone! They hit someone!”, my neighbour started shouting. There must have been hundreds of pictures taken of the hit. I didn’t see any more scuffles that day.
Inside the square, a feeling of celebration prevailed. Riot police lined the south side of the square, but there were spaces in between them and people filtered through easily. People fanned the police, took pictures beside them, and tried to make them smile. You could see them trying not to. The protest had gone on without a permit, and people`s sense of their own power – the power of numbers, the power of being right – was palpable.
In the centre of the square were the actual protesters – about 200 sitting people, some wearing anti-PX shirts with pictures of bombs on them. A dog sitting on an anti-PX sign was a centre of attention. “We want to live, we want our home and garden, we want our Dalian,” read a green banner – green connoting environmentalism. Children and old people were everywhere, unfazed, unworried.
Jonathan Watts, for The Guardian wrote that “tens of thousands” attended the protest. That’s impossible to confirm because of the nature of the protest’s organization – the genius of the label of 散步 or “walk,” is that it both exonerates and involves everyone. There are no doubt tens of thousands of pedestrians in Dalian’s downtown every day – but because of the “walk” label of the protest they were all, suddenly, politicized.
In the afternoon, Dalian mayor Li Wancai announced that the Fujia factory would be closed down and relocated. The crowd was skeptical, but the promise was repeated in press releases later that evening.
The final reason behind the government’s decision is, of course, opaque. Of course, the protest was probably a large factor in the final decision. (Have you ever said “no” to a crowd of thousands who want something?) And after outpourings of rage over the cover-ups and mishandlings of the Wenzhou train crash, officials may be eager to handle disasters better – the dike break was a near miss.
In addition, a few locals I’ve spoken to suspect that the Fujia factory owner has ties with top government officials, making this issue a power struggle between municipal and top-tier officials. Dalian officials may also have been antagonized by factory personnel – it’s rumored that several government representatives were beaten when they tried to enter the factory grounds.
What does PX mean? It means that people in China care enormously about protecting themselves from environmental contamination. This is an issue that everyone – from my coworkers to taxi drivers, from old to young – seems to care about.
That, however, was not the truly surprising part of the protest. The behaviour of the Dalianese police and government show how the political establishment has come to recognize the urgency of environmentalism and pro-environment policy. Not enough to relocate the damn factory themselves, mind you, but enough to give in when there’s a clear demand. Tackling environmental issues improves the Party’s public standing, while not coming close to threatening its political monopoly.
One of my students reminded me, however, that the government has yet to set a date for Fujia’s departure – and despite the promises, we can’t be certain of the protest’s success until Fujia is truly gone.