Beijing: Thousands of people demonstrated in northeastern China on Sunday, demanding the relocation of a petrochemical plant at the center of a toxic spill scare, state media said.
Demonstrators in the port city of Dalian, in Liaoning province, faced down a wall of police in riot gear in front of the municipal government office and minor scuffles broke out, although there was no report of injuries, state news agency Xinhua said.
State media said last Monday that residents in Dalian were forced to flee when a storm battering the northeast Chinese coast whipped up waves that burst through a dyke protecting the plant, which makes paraxylene (PX), a toxic petrochemical used in polyester.
Although authorities repaired the dyke and insisted that no spills were detected, the incident sparked panic that PX could have been released, fuelling resentment against the project. Calls on popular microblogging site Weibo and QQ, an instant messaging system, urged residents to protest on Sunday.
The outpouring of public anger is emblematic of the rising discontent facing Chinese leaders, which are obsessed with maintaining stability and are struggling to balance growth with growing public anger over pollution and environmental threats.
In a rare concession, Dalian's top official on Sunday "tried to appease the crowd by promising to move the polluting project out of the city," Xinhua said, adding that there was no sign of the protest dispersing soon.
Protesters, including children, marched holding banners that declared: "I love Dalian and reject poison" and "return me my home and garden, get out PX, protect Dalian," according to photographs posted on Weibo, China's version of Twitter.
Other showed three men standing on top of a police van in front of People's Square and a person in a skeleton costume surrounded by hundreds of men and policemen. Reuters could not verify the pictures.
"A poster was put on the Internet yesterday calling people to 'stroll' on Sunday morning starting from 10 am on the People's Square, near which the Dalian government is located," a resident in Dalian, who declined to be named, told Reuters by telephone.
"We know that the typhoon caused some leak of poisonous chemicals from the PX project and we are all worrying about it, because it is a threat to our life," the resident said. "We hope that such a 'stroll' may push the government to do something as soon as possible to dispel our worries."
Group strolls have become one way for Chinese people to show discontent with the government.
Calls to the Dalian government went unanswered.
Public distrust of the government mounted after Chinese media reported that the petrochemical plant might have been allowed to operate illegally months before it received mandatory environmental approval. According to Southern Metropolis News, the Fujia plant started full-scale production in June 2009, but it did not get the go-ahead from the Liaoning environmental protection bureau until April last year.
Chinese authorities, which are quick to suppress dissent from spreading, blocked searches on Weibo for "PX," "Dalian," and "Dalian protests." Search results for these terms showed pages that said "according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results are not displayed."
China's leaders have vowed to create a more "harmonious society" with cleaner air and water, even at the cost of slower economic growth.
But this dispute pits citizens against local officials whose priority often remains attracting fresh investment and revenue.
The Xiamen authorities in southern Fujian province were forced to scrap a similar PX project in 2008 after thousands of people in the city took to the streets.
The chemical PX can cause eye, nose or throat irritation and chronic exposure may result in death.
First Published: Sunday, August 14, 2011, 13:09