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Environmentalists v. Big Business - The Fight Comes To China

Local environmental concerns could undermine big Chinese economic ambitions. That tension, well-known in the West, is playing out near the site a petrochemical plant in Yunnan province.

Protesters in Kunming on May 4, 2013
Protesters in Kunming on May 4, 2013
Brice Pedroletti

KUNMING – In a middle of this small valley, a gaggle of trucks is heaving clouds of dust into the air. Welcome to Yunnan Province, in southwestern China.

We are 30 kilometers away from the provincial capital – Kunming – and its four million inhabitants. This huge construction site is where the Anning petroleum refinery will be built. Seven villages have been torn down, and their residents are now living in long rows of prefabricated buildings on the edge of the building site, like the survivors of a natural disaster. Each family member gets a 1,100-RMB monthly compensation ($190). In a year, maybe two, they will be resettled 10 kilometers from here.

Since the beginning of May, there have been two demonstrations in Kunming against the project; and now, those living near the site are starting to worry: “In the farming sector, we were struggling financially because of the drought, and I hope the government will find jobs for us. People in Kunming, 30 kilometers from here, are worried about the impact of the refinery on their health. For us, who are living much closer to the plant, does no one care about our health?” asks a young woman, before a village official arrives and puts an end to the interview.

Having an environmental conscience is not encouraged in China. It “contaminates” the souls and threatens the country’s most extravagant dreams of development.

With oil coming in through the upcoming Burma-China pipeline, the giant refinery of Anning is a key project that will turn Yunnan into a hub for trade and transport towards Southeast Asia.

Bordering Vietnam and Laos to the south and Burma to the west, Yunnan Province – population 45 million – has been chosen by the government to be at the forefront of this future expansion. Three new railway lines will be built, two of which are already underway. The first one will link Kunming to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The second one links Yunnan to the Burmese port of Kyaukpyu, on the Bay of Bengal. The oil and gas that arrives by boat in Kyaukpyu will be sent from there to China through the Burmese oil-and-gas pipeline.

This is a strategic breakthrough for China, which should provide an alternative to shipping routes and put an end to its dependency on the Strait of Malacca – where most of its hydrocarbon imports transit. It will also facilitate access to Yunnan with three pipelines supplying the rest of the province. According to China’s five-year economic development plan, Yunnan will be turned into a major petrochemical refining and production center.

But everything is not going as smoothly as the Chinese government would hope. Problems started at the end of March, when people found out about a paraxylene (PX) production plant that would be built alongside the future petroleum refinery. PX, a carcinogenic petrochemical used in the production of polyester and plastics, can become dangerous in case of an industrial accident. Plans involving PX have already been the targets of spectacular protests in China: Xiamen in 2007, Dalian in 2011 and Ningbo in 2012.

“PX, get out of Kunming”

On May 4, thousands of people took to Kunming’s main pedestrian street. They wore black facemasks that said “NO PX” in green letters, and carried banners that said “PX, get out of Kunming.”

In the following days, the local government made a clumsy attempt at damage control. On May 10, a televised press conference with the mayor was cut short by the broadcaster. The next day, the city of Kunming sent its constituents text-messages saying the mayor would call off the project if the majority of people opposed it.

The Yunnan general manager of PetroChina, the company, which will be operating the Kunming petrochemical complex, went on to say there would be no PX facility and that the complex would not produce PX. This only deepened the public’s mistrust.

Meetings were organized with powerful Internet bloggers and heads of non-governmental organizations. A dozen of them were even invited on a trip to Qinzhou, in the neighboring Guangxi province, to visit a PetroChina refinery.

In Yunnan, blogger Bian Min, who writes about environmental issues, says the situation is not encouraging – the refinery will not benefit locals, either in terms of employment or gas prices, contrary to what the local government has led them to believe.

He has also discovered that the refinery has been criticized by the Chinese environment ministry for falsifying data on the emission of pollutant gases.

As the word started to spread that another demonstration would take place on May 16, the authorities launched a vast prevention operation: universities, high schools, state-owned companies, taxis and NGOs were asked to ban their employees from demonstrating, and to apply sanctions if they did. “This angered people even more. The main issue is that we cannot trust our government”, a young demonstrator says, defining himself as an “observer,” but admitting he is “angry.”

On May 16, a crowd of people came together on Justice street, not far from the headquarters of the provincial government. They had new slogans: “Only life is important!” could be read in English and Chinese. “The fear of PX has made people aware of this issue,” says the young demonstrator.

He spent his childhood on a military industrial compound near Kunming, which was later dismantled but not before it had done irremediable damage to the environment. After spending several years on Beijing, he came back to Kunming, nicknamed the “city of eternal spring” because of its lovely weather.

“People in Kunming are known for their kindness, but frustration is mounting. There are construction projects all around the city, everything has been destroyed,” he says.

Because of the extraordinary biodiversity in the province, there are many Chinese and foreign NGOs working on environmental projects in the region. As a result, locals are very aware of environmental issues. L., a 30-year-old accountant, was among those who got involved and organized the demonstration on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo. The police paid a visit to her mother on Friday 17 and her Weibo account was blocked. She likes camping, hiking, is a vegetarian and like many other young people in the province, she rejects the idea of a forced development. “Climate imbalance is increasing – we have had a drought for the past five years. What’s the point of all the dams they built in Yunnan? People don’t want polluted air.”

Whether the PX plant is built or not, the new objective of militants is to “fight against the refinery,” she says. A new demonstration has been scheduled for June 6. The date is highly symbolic; it marks the opening of the first China-South East Asia fair, which will push forward the new ambitions of Yunnan.

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