Chinese City Halts Waste Project After Thousands Protest

Chinese City Halts Plant’s Waste Project After Thousands Protest
Protesters and police clash outside the local government offices in Qidong in the eastern China province of Jiangsu on July 28, 2012. Photographer: Peter Parks/AFP/GettyImages

Authorities in eastern China scrapped plans for a pipeline to discharge waste from a paper mill into the sea after a protest by thousands of residents turned violent.

The mayor of Nantong in Jiangsu province said on July 28 the project would be permanently canceled, a day after the vice mayor of Qidong, a lower-level coastal city where the demonstration took place, pledged to suspend construction of the pipeline from a paper factory run by a venture of Japan’s Oji Paper Co.

The unrest was the latest in a series of confrontations between local governments and residents over pollution concerns linked to industrial projects. Thousands of people in the southwestern city of Shifang protested earlier this month over the construction of a molybdenum copper plant, and demonstrators in northeast China’s Dalian last year succeeded in getting a chemical factory shuttered on environmental grounds, according to reports by state media.

The Qidong protests “demonstrate that ordinary people’s awareness of their rights has increased and they are more willing to assert their rights,” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It also demonstrates more sophistication on the part of the authorities in handling protests.”

Awareness Rising

Cases interpreted by the authorities as potentially “anti-party or anti-government” would lead to a crackdown “mercilessly and with a lot of force,” Lam said. “But if a protest is regarded as basically economic and environmental in nature, they are more willing to strike a deal.”

In a speech to leaders and officials of the ruling Communist Party published by Xinhua on July 23, President Hu Jintao noted that people’s demands for a better life and expectations for prompt solutions to prominent social problems were increasing.

“Local leaders have the responsibility of giving local residents full information about their governance,” China Daily wrote in an editorial today. “A local government’s lack of concern for the will of residents in its decision-making process is dangerous, especially when people’s awareness of their rights and interests is on the rise.”

The project was halted after demonstrators gathered in Qidong, a city of more than 1 million people across the Yangtze River from Shanghai, to renew protests against the pipeline which they said would pollute the sea, the official Xinhua News Agency reported on July 28.

Police Clashes

The decision was announced by Zhang Guohua, the mayor of Nantong, which administers Qidong, in a live televised broadcast at around 11 a.m. local time, Xinhua said.

About 10,000 people joined the protest, in which computers, desks and chairs in a government building were damaged, Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported. Opponents gathered even after Qidong’s vice mayor, Zhang Jianxin, announced the previous day the project was suspended and pledged to listen to residents’ concerns.

The Associated Press said some protesters clashed with police and turned a patrol car on its side. Hundreds of officers, some in riot gear, arrived later in the day and took up positions outside government offices, according to the AP report.

Offices Ransacked

Calls to the Qidong public security bureau yesterday were unanswered and an official who picked up the phone at the Nantong bureau directed questions to the city’s propaganda department. Cai Yunfei, the head of the department, couldn’t be reached on his mobile phone yesterday.

Photographs and comments about the demonstrations were posted on Sina Corp.’s microblogging service Weibo on the morning of July 28, showing offices of the Qidong government ransacked, police cars overturned and clashes between police and residents. By late afternoon, the material had been removed and didn’t appear in searches for “Qidong.”

Residents had petitioned against construction of the pipeline on the grounds that it would pollute a nearby fishery, the state-owned People’s Daily reported on its website on July 27. The Shanghai Daily said there were also claims that discharge from the mill could pollute Shanghai’s Qingcaosha Reservoir at the mouth of the Yangtze River.

Local residents had voiced concerns on the Internet “for years” about environmental damage to the sea around Qidong, one of the country’s four major fishing grounds, Xinhua said.

Worsening Pollution

The waste discharge pipeline targeted by the protesters is linked to a paper mill operated by an Oji Paper venture. The plant, in the Nantong Economic and Technological Development Zone, involved total investment of $1.95 billion, and is the group’s largest overseas investment, according to the company’s Chinese-language website.

The pipeline is an auxiliary project of the plant and is not carried out by Oji Paper’s joint venture, the Tokyo-based company said in a statement on its Chinese website on July 27. The Qidong plant has a “very strict” management system in which water is treated inside the facility before being discharged, the manufacturer said.

Concerns the nation’s rapid economic growth is damaging the environment, worsening pollution and encouraging corruption are prompting protests, strikes and riots across China. The growth of the Internet and microblogs has made it more difficult for the government to control the spread of information, and has pushed authorities to respond to criticism and demonstrations.

Beijing’s Communist Party Secretary Guo Jinlong said on July 27 the government must “seriously reflect” on the lessons of the recent floods in the capital, after users of microblog services accused the authorities of hiding the full death toll and neglecting the city’s outdated sewer systems.

He spoke the same day the government raised to 77 from an initial 37 its estimate of the number of people who died in flooding from Beijing’s record July 21 rainstorms.

The authority’s slowness “left the general public enraged and perplexed,” Xinhua said in a commentary.

— With assistance by William Bi, Rachel Evans, and Jie Ma

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