The New Epicenter of China's Discontent

Dispatch from a city that wasn't supposed to be on the brink.
August 24, 2011 |
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This northeastern port city, with its gleaming skyscrapers, seaside yacht club, and Cartier and Armani boutiques on People's Road, might seem about the least likely site for one of China's largest protests in years. Dalian is, after all, the host of regional World Economic Forum meetings, where Davos Man comes to China; a center of electronics manufacturing; and a popular holiday destination. Since the mid-1990s, it has been widely considered among the country's cleanest and most livable cities, a peaceful place where tourists come to watch dolphin shows at "Sun Asia Ocean World" and where wealthy older couples come to retire by the sea. This is, in other words, not obviously a city on the brink.

But on Sunday, Aug. 14, Dalian erupted. An estimated 12,000 people packed the manicured grass of People's Square opposite Dalian's city hall and lined many surrounding streets. They had come to demand that a chemical plant perched on the coast be shuttered and relocated, immediately. The local government and international media sat bolt upright -- the former issuing promises to move the factory; the latter, surprised praise. In Dalian, it's called the "8-14 event."

Why did this happen? Why now, and why Dalian?

Anger over pollution is not new in China. As many as 90,000 "mass incidents" in China were sparked by environmental concerns last year, according to researchers at China's Nankai University. Yet unlike many factories targeted by farmers who've watched crops fail or seen relatives fall ill, the Fujia-Dalian chemical plant, which began operations in 2009, was not linked to egregious past health hazards. Rather, the fear was for the future.

In early August, a typhoon had grazed the coast and breached one of the factory's protective dykes, raising an ominous question: If a future storm ruptured its chemical storage tanks -- situated less than 100 yards from the sea -- would the entire city be wiped out in a toxic flood? The plant's main product, paraxylene (PX), is used in the manufacture of polyester; it is a toxin that causes skin and eye irritation and in large doses can cause nerve damage. To residents of Dalian, a city of 6 million perched on a peninsula in the Yellow Sea and surrounded on three sides by ocean, the specter of chemical apocalypse seemed, as one protester told me, "a matter of life and death."

Plans for the $1.5 billion factory, jointly owned by the city and the private company Fujia, were approved in 2007. Although the factory is one of Dalian's 10 largest, little was said about it in the media at the time, perhaps because of recent protests against another planned PX plant in the southeastern city of Xiamen. The Dalian plant now generates an estimated $330 million annually in tax revenue.

In a familiar pattern in China, public fears had caught fire in the weeks preceding the protest as the government failed to disclose information about the factory and blocked subsequent efforts by Chinese media to report on the real risks. Meanwhile, recent news reports on Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster provided nightmare grist for the imagination.

In early August, when the heavy winds that would become Typhoon Muifa were just gathering force in the Pacific, a CCTV film crew flew to Dalian to investigate what would happen if the storm triggered a leak in the factory's chemical storage tanks. But the reporters were stopped at the gate and then beaten, reportedly by workers ordered to do so by factory bosses. News of the incident spread online. Then on Aug. 9, a trailer for a segment about the factory aired on a popular CCTV news program. But shortly before it was to be broadcast, someone at CCTV received a request to yank the segment, and did so.

Both the beating of the reporters and the missing CCTV program generated furious speculation in Dalian, with blogs and tweets going up faster than censors could contain them: What were residents not being told? What higher hand was protecting the factory from scrutiny? Was the danger so much worse than anyone imagined?

The former party boss whose tenure coincided with the project's approval, Xia Deren, was widely despised in Dalian as corrupt and inattentive to popular will -- in marked contrast with his predecessor, the charismatic and beloved Bo Xilai, who had effectively positioned himself as the people's champion. Did some scandal involving Xia explain why the factory had landed in Dalian? In the absence of credible facts coming through the media or other official channels, dire scenarios circulated online: Contact with contaminated seawater would kill you within eight minutes; a generation of Dalian children would be born with severe deformities.

In retrospect, the sense of existential peril was a bit exaggerated. A campaigner from Greenpeace East Asia, who was not involved in organizing the protest, noted the actual potential impacts, most likely skin or eye irritation, were somewhat less than those feared. Yet there was a real risk, and the people of this otherwise safe and comfortable city had no regular, trusted channel to press the issue. And so they marched.

In this feverish context a message that spread online through social media the preceding week drew 12,000 people onto the streets. Remarkably, the people who responded to the call didn't know who sent it. Without knowing the leader or whether he or she could be personally trusted, they came -- some stridently, some partly out of curiosity. They came on short notice. They came on a drizzly Sunday morning.

Cindy Xin, a plucky, fashionable accountant in her 20s, arrived at People's Square a few minutes after 10 a.m. She had taken the bus from her home, about an hour's ride from downtown Dalian, and came with her roommate. Neither had ever participated in a demonstration. "On my way, I kept thinking: I don't know how many people will actually come out," she recalls. "Will they come? Will they really come?"

Xin had first heard about the protest from colleagues at work the previous week. Everyone knew that something was about to happen; the firm's financial director had even joked that three days' more vacation leave would be given to those who went out to protest. "I think it shows how many people were supportive," she says.

To find out more, Xin had gone online, first entering "Dalian" and "August 14" into the popular Internet search engine Baidu. By Aug. 12, many of the search results had been blocked or pointed to dead links, yet she was still able to find the essential information: The plan was to meet at 10 a.m. in People's Square on Aug. 14. Next she logged onto Renren, China's version of Facebook, and saw that many of her friends had sent messages about the protest, asking: "Will you go?" She didn't know then (and still doesn't) who actually organized the protest, but everyone knew about it. It was no secret.

When Xin and her roommate arrived, People's Square was already full of people, thousands of people -- more than she had ever seen together in one place -- with even more packing the nearby streets. A line of riot police circled the square, watching. Xin and her roommate pushed through the crowd to the main square and turned to face the low, concrete government building with a red flag fluttering atop and lines of new skyscrapers visible behind. As they waited, she began to scan the others in the crowd. Some carried signs that read: "Get out PX! Give us back Dalian!" A few had gas masks. Others carried Chinese flags and sung the national anthem. Many, but not all, were young. The crowd was organized, orderly. Some even picked up litter. From the accents, she knew that almost everyone was a Dalian resident. Some companies had made T-shirts for their employees to wear to the protest, and they were posing for group photos.

Shortly after 10:30 a.m., a man climbed atop a police van. He wore a loose gray polo shirt and dark slacks. It was Tang Jun, the city's party boss. Speaking with a microphone in one hand, he said the PX factory would be moved out of Dalian. He made a promise. And then, with a wave of his hand, he told everyone to leave the square and go home.

But no one moved. Then someone shouted from the crowd: "When will it move?"

Tang stared into the crowd and did not answer.

"10 days! 10 days!" people in the crowd began to shout.

And then they shouted, "Stop the production! Stop the production!"

Tang said nothing. He climbed down from the van and left the square.

Xin stayed a while longer. Many people in the crowd were taking photos or videos with their cameras, recording the scene. She began to notice more men in uniform coming into the square -- not ordinary police, but riot police, with green uniforms, helmets, and shields. Earlier, she had chatted with some of the local police officers, who she says were mostly friendly to her. "They are just doing their jobs," she thought. "They are regular Dalian citizens, too, and I think they are sympathetic with the protesters." But not the officers with shields and unfamiliar accents. They had come from other parts of China -- as she put it, "The military policemen have the poker face." She heard people in the crowd talking about the lines of army-green trucks now snaking outside the city. At about 11:30, she left, but many stayed.

In the afternoon, Mayor Li Wancai also faced the crowd and made a promise that the factory would stop production immediately and move out of Dalian. People cheered. He was, after all, the mayor, and most felt satisfied -- or at least willing to wait and see whether it was true -- and went home.

That evening, after the light had faded from the sky, a smaller crowd was left in People's Square; they wanted some proof of action being taken and began to march down Yellow River Road. Now outnumbered by security forces, some were chased and reportedly beaten (fortunately, no one died). Many later posted their stories online. When Xin heard this, at first she didn't believe it; in the morning, after all, the crowd and even the police had been so peaceful. But when a good friend told her he had been there and seen it, she believed him.

The next morning, the local newspaper ran a headline that said the mayor had addressed a large crowd and that the PX factory would move. But there was no photo, and no more details. "We feel hopeless about our local media," Xin sighed.

Later that week, another newspaper article announced that plans to move the factory were under way, but that relocation was a complicated matter. One plan under discussion is to move the factory to one of the nearby small islands in the Yellow Sea. Because the city owns the island, the local government would still be able to collect taxes. But though such a move would put the plant out of sight, it's not clear it would also put people out of harm's way.

"If Dalian people think it's a matter of whether we live, no matter what we will go out" to protest, says Xin. "And I live in this city; I'm from here. I don't want to die."

Could it happen elsewhere in China? In Dalian, the trigger points were all distinctly local and in many ways quite singular: the typhoon, the factory by the sea, and upset at a political transition from a popular city leader to a deeply unpopular one. Some marchers carried flags and sang patriotic songs; they were not fuming about the direction of the country, but of the city. No organizers with ties to national groups have been identified.

But other factors are becoming more common elsewhere in China, most importantly awareness of environmental problems and online tools to organize. "With the growing transparency provided by the Internet," says Elizabeth Economy, author of an environmental history of China, The River Runs Black, "Chinese people are increasingly aware of the consequences of pollution on their well-being and are seeking to protect themselves and their interests from the potentially harmful impacts of the poor development and environmental choices of local officials." Economy expects organized environmental activism in China to grow over the next five to 10 years -- as well as mass protests, which, she points out, are a tactic of last resort.

But would more protests inevitably lead toward greater openness and more responsive government in China, or would they lead to harsher crackdowns, on people and information? What lesson will Beijing and other city governments take from Aug. 14?

On the afternoon of the protests, Dalian's mayor and party secretary made public promises to move the plant -- yet some media reports, including by Reuters, indicate the factory's operations did not immediately cease. Meanwhile, censors have scrubbed photos and other information about the protest from Chinese websites and social media platforms.

International commentators have been quick to celebrate the display of people power; take for instance, this headline from Britain's Telegraph newspaper: "The march of China's new middle class." Yet local observers and experts on China's tumultuous environmental politics are inclined to take a wait-and-see approach.

"Only time will tell if Dalian constitutes a victory," says Alex Wang, an expert on Chinese environmental issues at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Law. "If this incident leads to more and better environmental transparency and better systems for ensuring that the public is protected from environmental risks, then it will have been a victory." But he adds: "If the takeaway for the powers that be is that information needs to be more tightly controlled, then the pressures that led to the Dalian PX protests in the first place will only continue to grow."

On overcast days, the view from Dalian's rocky beaches is foreboding: The slate-colored shore fades into the gray of the sea, and then of the sky. But a few dark shadows interrupt the horizon, distant islands. One such island might be the future home of the infamous PX plant. Who will ultimately get to decide? It would be more satisfying to celebrate last week's protest if there were some glimmer of hope that the public will have a real say in what happens next. But currently in China, trends seem to be moving in the exact opposite direction.

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