A stand-off over a potentially dangerous chemical plant ended Friday in the center of Xiamen after thousands of protesters energized by widespread SMS text messages repeatedly charged police lines and the police backed down, letting the marchers through.
Even in China, where authorities spend huge amounts of time and effort to monitor and block Internet traffic, the Xiamen protest illustrates the explosive power of the online and texting community and the inability of authorities to choke it off. By Friday afternoon, the Internet had exploded with photos, videos and live updates on such social websites as Twitter, Flickr, Tudou and countless blogs and forums. The revolution may not be televised, but it will most certainly be blogged.
The day's events, however, are also an indication that at least some of China's authorities, faced with thousands of protests daily, have begun to bend to crowds without resorting to the brutal tactics that have characterized so many other incidents across the country.
The story started when it was announced last November that a chemical plant was being built just 7 km across Xiamen Bay in neighbouring Haicang District. The plant is expected to involve the manufacture of paraxylene and PTA (terapthalic acid), two toxic substances essential to the polyester industry.
The two companies constructing the project, Dragon Aromatics and Xiamen Xianglu Group, received approval from the State Development and Reform Commission and were supposed to have undergone an environmental assessment. That assessment, however, was not made public or even available to the dissenting members of CPPCC.
Columnist and blogger Lian Yue of Southern Weekend wrote extensively, trying to bring the issue into the public eye. But as dissent grew, the Xiamen government closed the topic to local press. Bloggers, however, picked up the slack. At Lian Yue’s suggestion, Xiamen citizens started websites such as HaicangPX and antipx.com, while others posted about concerns of cataclysmic effects should there be any accident that would release the thousands of tons of toxins the plant would produce.
National news websites such as Sina and Sohu reported on the matter, however, indicating that the national government was either unaware of growing concerns or believed censorship to be unnecessary. Soon stenciled graffiti began appearing across Xiamen, depicting seagulls and the English words “I Love Xiamen, No PX “.
The mayor of Xiamen, He Lifeng, claimed that there was no significant problem with the plant and that dissenters such as Zhao Yufen were in error. Meanwhile, it was discovered that Xiamen Xianglu Group was connected to Chen Youhao, a fugitive businessman wanted by the Taiwanese government on breach of trust charges.
On March 16, Xiamen University professor Zhao Yufen, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, gave a speech at the CPPCC meeting expressing concern over the health hazards posed by the plant. Chinese regulations stipulate that such plants should be at least 10 km away from urban areas. That was followed by a joint letter written by 105 CPPCC members urging the project be relocated.
Although the Chinese press and the CPPCC official conference reported the complaints, it wasn’t until the issue was picked up by alarmed Xiamen Internet and SMS users that it exploded into real public view. Although a critical article examining the potential environmental dangers from the plant appeared in March in the Hong Kong magazine Phoenix Weekly, the edition was quickly pulled from shelves in Xiamen. However, it was available in other parts of Fujian and the rest of China and Xiamen and quickly picked up by members of the online community.
Then, on March 25, a text message began circulating around Xiamen. It read:
“Xianglu Group joint venture has already begun investing in a benzene project. Once this kind of heavily poisonous chemical is manufactured, it will be like all of Xiamen has been hit with an atomic bomb, and Xiamen people’s lives will be full of leukemia and deformed children. We want to live, we want to be healthy! International organizations require this sort of project to be developed a distance of 100 km outside of a city. Our Xiamen is just 16 km away! For our children and grandchildren, send this message to all your Xiamen friends! “
This message was widely reported in Chinese online media, though not all included the coda:
“For our children and grandchildren, act! Participate among 10,000 people, June 1 at 8am, opposite the municipal government building! Hand tie yellow ribbons! SMS all your Xiamen friends! “
Many news outlets reported the message was sent on March 28, though a similar although not necessarily identical message was definitely first sent on March 25. On the 28th, Yang Jinlin, a host on the Phoenix TV program Du Bao Magazine Critique read and commented on the Phoenix Weekly article, declaring the project “poison “. Phoenix TV is a Mandarin-language station broadcast from Hong Kong but watched widely on the mainland.
On May 29, the SMS message was reportedly blocked amid claims it had reached a million people. Blocked words reportedly included “benzene “, “demonstration “, “atomic “, and “leukemia “, but only Xiamen registered numbers were blocked and numbers registered in other areas of the country were reported to work.
On May 30, the government announced it would “postpone “ the project pending further environmental review. Netizens complained that postponement was not the same as canceling, and voiced great suspicion that it was a delaying tactic, in the hopes that people would forget and move on. A Nanfang Daily editorial that same day argued that citizens had mobilized the media to have their voices heard, despite the government’s attempt to remove magazines, text messages and other media with a “magic wand “, but stated that “whether it will be effective, we shall wait and see. “
May 31, Xiamen Daily published an editorial stating that both the government and concerned citizens had Xiamen’s best interest at heart, but that one individual, the SMS writer named XiamenWave22, was “misleading the public and provoking hostility between the government and the masses “. Netizens continued to leave comments voicing their skepticism and anger, but there was little to indicate what might occur the following day.
At 8am, people began arriving at the People’s Great Hall across from the Municipal government. Dozens of police lined the front of the government headquarters, and were stationed around the People’s Great Hall. By 8:30am, the crowd had swelled to several hundred. As the numbers grew, yellow ribbons were handed out and people took photos from all angles.
The police took no action, and minutes later the crowd cheered as the first sign, an eight-by-11 sheet reading “Oppose PX, Protect Xiamen “, appeared. Then things grew quickly — red banners on poles, a long purple banner and signs printed on heavy board were raised, and the crowd chanted “Protect Xiamen, Everyone has a Responsibility “. Then at 9am, apparently spontaneously, the crowd began to move.
The crowd moved west with the police following them but making little attempt to prevent the march. Eventually the protesters circled back to the south side of the Great People’s Hall where the march had started, encountering police tape blocking them from circling the hall. They turned south and crossed into the heart of the city. Children, senior citizens, and Xiamen residents of all sorts were among the throng, which some marchers estimated at as many as 5,000.
One elderly woman said she had journeyed from northern Fujian “for the sake of Xiamen’s children and grandchildren “, a slogan of the march that came from the infamous SMS message, and was repeated through internet posts and signs held by marchers.
Although a recent graduate of Xiamen University labeled the municipal government criminals, the atmosphere was overall one of jubilation. People left shops along the route to watch, cheer and join the march. Faces looked down from office and apartment windows. Crowds gathered on flyovers to look down at the sea of people as they brought traffic in the center of Xiamen to a standstill.
The police, perhaps prescient enough to realize that stopping the march would bring even more bad publicity, followed the march and cleared streets ahead of them, diverting traffic to prevent any accidents or injuries. Considering that there had been no national ban on reporting the story, and press in Hong Kong had already taken note of the issue, any crackdown to prevent the protest would probably have simply made the situation worse, or perhaps even sparked a violent conflict.
The marchers continued but at one intersection they were met by a line of police with interlocked arms and two trucks of PLA soldiers in green fatigues. To cries of “Charge! “ dozens of marchers led the crowd directly into the line of police, who relented and allowed them to pour through several gaps.
The police and military redeployed at another intersection and again the marchers charged through, this time demolishing part of the metal railing that separated east- and west-bound traffic. The marchers made their full circuit back to the municipal government, and by three o’clock that afternoon there were reports of continuing protests.
In the following days, attention will be on the Xiamen government to see whether the protest will make government-controlled television or newspapers. The central government, if they were not paying attention now, will be keeping a vigilant eye on Xiamen.