On Leaks; Chemical and Otherwise

The news rippled its way through the office by word of mouth. The message had energy – so much so that it found its way into English, and, therefore, found me. 

“Something’s happening on Saturday.” “On Sunday,” someone else said. “It’s because of the typhoon.” “It’s that factory.” It was at People’s Square, everyone agreed on that, but what time, anyway? And why? I tried searching online, and I saw many pages on “August 14 at People’s Square” – but the actual webpages had all been taken down. Word of mouth was king.

Much about this event – a “movement,” some called it, others a “walk” – was heard before I got an explanation for why it was happening.  Soon enough one of my students volunteered one.

Typhoon Muifa, which swept through Dalian last Monday, broke a dike that was protecting the Fujia Dahua Chemical Co. Ltd. building. In fact, I had read about this. The typhoon came close to causing a dangerous chemical leak. But the English-language media I had read (mostly coverage in China’s English-language newspapers) interpreted this as an accident. A frightening one, to be sure, but just an accident.

The people of Dalian, however, did not feel this way.

Chinese reporters and netizens (and one lone, useful English article) revealed that Fujia Dahua was illegally close to the city centre. It should have been kept far away because of its product: p-Xylene, a chemical used in polyester production that is toxic to all living things.

Defying international regulations, the National Reform and Development Commission (China’s economic planning committee) approved the plant back in 2005. Citizens were outraged – they had been living unaware of this threat to their water supply and their lives.

This – call it whatever, but it was a protest – was a demand for the government to move the factory out of town.

“I wouldn’t go,” said my LB. “I think it’s a little dangerous. They’re saying that old people and children shouldn’t go.” We were having lunch in a coworker’s residential complex. 

Using the Socratic method (read: being dumb) I said, “Why should it be dangerous? This protest is over a relatively minor issue – moving a factory isn’t as sensitive as religious protests, or separatism.”

My two coworkers suggested that the police might lose their cool. (That happens in Canada, too, I was thinking)….Then my coworker’s husband spoke up. “We all know that this is about the ‘black society’ (mafia) and the government’s relationship with them.”  That’s what we’re really protesting, he seemed to be suggesting.

“As the country develops, we Chinese are more and more democratic-minded,” he mused.

However, none of my coworkers, friends or roommates had any interest in actually going to this event. “Too far,” one said. “Too dangerous,” said most of my fellow-foreigners.

So, of course, I had to go.