On Sunday, a group of protestors took to the streets in the city of Maoming in China’s Guangdong province. The protesters were marching against the construction of a new paraxylene (PX) plant to be added to the Maoming refinery, which is jointly run by Maoming’s local government and China’s state-owned oil company Sinopec. PX is used as a base material in the manufacture of plastics and polyester—but in China it is much better known as a potential environmental hazard.
In recent years, there have been a number of protests against PX plants in Chinese cities, including Dalian, Ningbo, and Kunming. In each of these cases, local opposition from the public was based upon concerns over the environmental impact of building the plants.
In Maoming, the protest began early on Sunday morning. According to eyewitnesses, the rally began with several hundred people and grew to include several thousand at its peak. Images of the protests were widely circulated on social media, including Sina Weibo. According to several accounts, the protests remained peaceful until around 10 pm that night. Then, according to eyewitnesses, a small sub-group of protestors became violent. There were reports of police cars being set on fire and protestors throwing rocks. One eyewitness told the Financial Times that the demonstration turned into a riot.
In response, the local security forces moved in quickly (and allegedly violently) to disperse the protestors. On social media, images purportedly showed unconscious protestors lying in pools of blood as police forces marched by. There were even rumors on social media that several protestors had been killed in the violence, although government officials and media sources denied these claims. Soon censors jumped in to ban the search term “Maoming” on social media platforms like Sina Weibo. Censors also began to delete posts about the protests.
However, the violence against the Maoming protests may have backfired, causing more support for the movement. After the Maoming protest was broken up, new protests were organized in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. These rallies sought not only to show opposition to the PX plant in Maoming, but more importantly to protest the use of violence against protestors. One protestor told Reuters, “It’s not right that the paramilitary police can injure or beat people to death. It violates our most basic interests as citizens.” A protest organizer told the Financial Times that the Guangzhou protests were organized explicitly to draw attention to police actions: “We want the public to know about the violence used by the Maoming local government.” Protests in Guangzhou were reportedly smaller than the original march in Maoming, attracting a few hundred participants.
For its part, the Maoming government claimed that the protest was organized by a “group of outlaws” who “seriously harmed the social order.” The government urged people to “trust science and trust the government” and to “use the proper channels” to express their opinions on the PX plant. After the protests in Guagnzhou, the government seemed to soften its stance, issuing a statement explaining that the PX plant had not received final approval yet. “If the majority of people are against it, the city government won’t make a decision contrary to public opinion,” the Maoming government said in a statement.
Maoming officials seemed to have realized, given the history of anti-PX plant protests, that they were dealing with a potential minefield. Indeed, the Chinese news outlet Sohu reported that the local government had rolled out a substantial information campaign to educate the population about the PX plant. The government invited experts to speak about PX and published numerous reassuring stories about the plant in the Maoming Daily, with the first such piece appearing in late February and the latest piece running on Monday. However, these efforts seem to have backfired, only increasing public fears over the PX plant.
In its coverage of the Maoming protests, the Global Times attributed the spike in protests to a “lack of communication between local governments and the public plus poor official credibility.” Other Chinese media reports also suggest a similar theme—the protestors simply don’t trust government and media assurances that PX plants do not pose a health hazard. Given that many of the most high-profile recent protests in China have been based on environmental concerns, this trust gap could pose a concern for China moving forward.