A massive protest in Maoming, a city in affluent Guangdong province in southern China, on March 30, 2014 against a chemical project ended in scuffles with police, leaving some protesters injured.
An amateur YouTube video showed hundreds of protesters marching through a city street on Sunday in the latest case of growing environmental activism in China. Flanked by cheering and chanting onlookers, the crowd steadily moved along and then gathered in front of what appears to be the local government headquarters. Many punched their fists into the air and unfurled white banners calling for the project, which produces paraxylene (PX) – commonly used for producing plastic bottles and fiber – to be scrapped.
In the wake of the protests, censors have moved quickly to scrub photos and posts circulating on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. Some images captured by overseas Chinese media purportedly showed a few protesters lying on the ground bleeding from the head alongside the presence of paramilitary police. Unverified photos also documented clashes between police and protesters.
A statement released by Maoming municipal government labeled the protest “unlawful”; local government said no one died in the protest. It accused a small group of protesters of hurling stones and water bottles at police and public facilities:
On March 30, 2014, a minority of residents flouted the Demonstration and Convention Law of the People's Republic of China and took to the street to protest against the soon-to-be-launched PX project without submitting requests to the managing agency. It has severely violated the law and seriously affected social order. The municipal government sternly opposes such acts that violate the Demonstration and Convention Law of the People's Republic of China. The municipal government will take into account public concerns and opinions, and we will ensure people's right to know and report to relevant ministries and experts in a realistic manner. We will strive to build the project in accordance with facts and regulations. The fact that Maoming citizens show great concern for the city has shown that our city's development has great hope.
The right to demonstrate is enshrined in the Chinese constitution, but authorities often clamp down on such acts of public defiance lest they embarrass or pose challenges to local governance.
In recent years, China has seen at least of four PX protests in major cities. Some scored rare victories by successfully forcing authorities to move the projects, while others had no such impact.
China became the largest producer and consumer of PX in 2010, registering an annual output of 7.5 million tonnes last year. Caixin, a respected Chinese magazine, quoted an industry executive as saying in 2011 that the country is planning to build ten more PX refineries with a yearly output of 800,000 tonnes.
On Sina Weibo, a search for “Maoming PX” yielded the standard notice that said “According to relevant laws, the results can not be displayed”.
Some users, however, did manage to bypass the censorship, such as “MYyipee”, who posted this message:
Maoming is bleeding, it's a dying city. Because of officials’ blindness and thirst for greatness and grandeur, they just act arbitrarily and trample on public opinions. They are accelerating the death of Maoming. To build a PX project is ridiculous. Authorities have resorted to tactics such as forcing students into classrooms and confining them! It's a weekend day today! What gives you the power to use innocent students as a tool and suppress them? Such acts only point to the coldness and impotence of local authorities.
Tianming Zhigao wrote on Weibo:
鄙人觉得 单一一个反对PX 不可能聚集到这么多人，可能更多的人是出于对现实不满才参与进来的吧
I think the opposition toward the PX project can't possibly draw so many people. Perhaps more people joined because they are not satisfied with the reality of life.
Laobusi de Feiyuji gave her account of the story:
The PX project hadn't passed the environmental appraisal, then the [local government] forced staff at many local work units to sign an agreement and forced students to return to school to [prevent them] from protesting. Residents went ahead with their display of dissatisfaction with the government's actions, but non-Maoming residents and some local gangsters joined in. Police beat up certain protesters, which enraged the crowd, then local government deployed police in the neighboring county to begin encircling the town. Later, it issued a statement labelling the incident as a mob gathered to disturb social order.
Cai Shufang, a Hongkong-based human rights activist, wrote on Twitter:
茂名市民31日继续抗议PX项目 警方再次投掷催泪弹 http://t.co/4bcgJnF8vj 31日下午市民在茂名市委员会门前抗议茂名PX项目，口号包括“文明抗议PX项目”“反对PX还我净土”等，抗议人群中很多年轻人，当地政府也出动大批警力维稳，晚间警方发射催泪弹驱散民众
— 蔡淑芳 (@sfchoi8964) March 31, 2014
Residents of Maoming continued to protest against the PX project on March 31. Police have again used tear gas. On the afternoon of March 31, residents gathered in front of Maoming city government to protest. They chanted slogans like, “Rally against the PX project in a civilised manner” and “Oppose PX and return my clean land”. Many protesters are young people. Local government has deployed a large number of police, and they fired tear gas to disperse the crowd last night.
Vito-fun from Guangdong wrote:
I believe the PX project itself is fine, but to have a corrupt government with no credibility run the project, we all have no confidence! Maoming is such a good place and its location and abundance in resources and labor is practically no different than the [rich] Pearl River region! Among the coastal cities, which city has more severe corruption than Maoming and Zhanjiang?
Echoing the same sentiment was Wuyue Sanren, a well-known online commentator. He wrote:
I've made this clear early on that the PX project built there and the protest is no different than genetically modified food, they are not scientific issues but rather political and social issues. It all comes down to the issue of government credibility. I'd like to say it again: It's not that people don't believe in science, it's that many people don't believe in “the science preached by the government”
Rainsir complained about a lack of information:
When I opened twitter, too much information about people against Maoming PX came into my eyes, what makes me feel horrible is I didn't know.