Beijing, Aug 14: Chinese authorities on Sunday agreed to shut down a controversial petrochemical plant after thousands of residents in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian on Sunday took to the streets in an unprecedented mass protest, sparking clashes with riot police.
The protests were triggered by safety fears in the wake of the typhoon Muifa hitting the area, prompting concerns of a toxic spill after a dike guarding the Fujia plant was broken leading to evacuations. The plant in Dalian was manufacturing the chemical paraxylene (PX), which is used in the production of fabric and is carcinogenic.
Authorities said the damaged dike had been repaired, but mounting fears of a toxic spill following the evacuation of some residents and anger over the lack of public consultations in setting up the plant, which is around 30 km from the city, sparked Sunday's protest.
Residents, carrying protest signs and some even wearing gas-masks, assembled in the city's main square in front of the municipal government's office on Sunday morning, chanting “Fujia, get out!”.
There were confrontations and “minor scuffles” between protesters and hundreds of riot police, the official Xinhua news agency reported, adding that there were no reports of injuries.
Following the demonstration, the local government issued a statement on Sunday saying it had agreed to close the plant and relocate it.
Tang Jun, the Communist Party's top official in the city, "tried to appease the crowd" by promising to move the project away from the city, the official Xinhua news agency reported, adding that the demonstrations nevertheless showed no signs of easing. Mr. Tang was greeted with some chants calling for him to leave, users on Weibo reported.
Chinese environmentalist activists said the protest reflected growing awareness of public health issues, as well as a milestone for rising activism in China's fast-growing middle-class, particularly fuelled by the wide popularity of social media networks.
Calls for the protest, as well as early photographs of protesters gathering in Dalian, were circulating widely on the Chinese Internet on Sunday morning, but were later censored on popular networking sites such as Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter equivalent which is used by more than 140 million people.
Posts spread on Sina Weibo on Sunday carrying information about the mass demonstration, although posts were quickly controlled with “all related material.. being scrubbed” from the Internet, the China Media Project, an Internet-monitoring website in Hong Kong University, reported. It reported the protest appeared to be a well-organised demonstration, with pre-planned posters, t-shirts and slogans.
By Sunday afternoon, searches for Dalian were being blocked on Weibo.
Photographs on Weibo suggested many of the protesters were students and appeared to be white-collar workers.
A similar protest in Guangzhou in 2009 saw hundreds of residents take to the streets to oppose a garbage incinerator project. The event was seen as a landmark case for public awareness of environmental issues in China.
Residents in the southern city of Xiamen also protested against a similar PX plant, funded by a Taiwanese company, in 2007, following which the plant was moved out of the city.