Protests show growing concern over environment

Updated: 2014-04-03 07:33

By Cao Kai from Xinhua and Zheng Caixiong in Guangzhou (China Daily USA)

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Protests staged since Sunday against a planned paraxylene plant in Maoming, Guangdong province, seemed to die down on Wednesday. But the quandary for a local government seeking a balance between development and stability never ends.

More than 1,000 locals have protested in front of Maoming's government building, in scenes that reflect growing public opposition across China to projects deemed dangerous or polluting. The Maoming protesters have smashed office windows and billboards in a display of their anger over the mooted local production of PX, a commonly used petrochemical.

Though the government pledged on Monday to consult the public before moving forward with the PX facility, protests continued into a third day. They even spread to Guangzhou on Tuesday, when hundreds rallied near the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, close to the Guangdong provincial government office.

Liang Luoyue, deputy mayor of Maoming, met with representatives of the protesters on Tuesday afternoon and reaffirmed the promise of public consultation.

Liang said the government will strengthen communication with residents and expand channels for them to express their demands through meeting with government officials, media and the Internet.

Maoming, which has a population of 7 million, already boasts the largest petrochemical base in southern China.

Since 2007, planned PX projects in Xiamen, Dalian, Ningbo and Kunming have been canceled after residents protested. It is not yet clear if the Maoming government will follow suit.

Zheng Fenming, director of the Institute of Modernization Strategy at Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences, said the protest indicated that residents' awareness of environmental protection has increased.

Maoming may not have been ready or well prepared for the construction of the PX project when residents began the protest, he said.

"Relevant departments should clearly explain the advantages and disadvantages of the PX project to residents before the project is authorized," Zheng said on Wednesday.

Open, just and transparent procedures should also be introduced for registration and construction of the project, said Zheng, who is also a member of the Guangdong Provincial Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body.

Meanwhile, government departments should have to compensate those who are affected by the project's construction, such as those forced to move away or those whose legal interests will be affected by the project, he added.

China was the world's largest consumer of PX in 2013. It consumed 16 million metric tons of it, more than half the amount imported from overseas, according to Chang Yizhi, a chemical industry researcher with CIConsulting, a leading Chinese industrial consultancy.

Delays to improving China's self-sufficiency in PX supply will force Chinese companies to continue bulk purchases from the international market, Chang said.

A guidance plan released by the Guangdong government in October 2009 envisioned Maoming as a world-class petrochemical base. With an annual production capacity of 600,000 tons, the planned PX plant was obviously one of the fundamentals to achieve that goal.

The project is also listed in China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15).

The Maoming branch of Sinopec, China's largest refinery, is confident in carrying out the PX project without safety risks.

"PX is not a new thing," said Wang Qiwen, a manager with the company. "PX production has a 30-year history in China, and there are 16 PX programs currently running in the country."

Another Sinopec executive, who wished to remain anonymous, reiterated the company's persistence in completing the PX project, adding that "PX has no technological risks and no major accidents have happened in the sector so far".

While one Sinopec staff member told Xinhua News Agency that PX pollution was most likely to happen during storage and transportation, he said that any leakage from petrochemical facilities would likely harm the environment.

The Maoming branch of Sinopec will invite residents to examine existing equipment, facilities and manufacturing processes elsewhere to relieve their anxiety and take their feedback, said a senior executive on condition of anonymity.

Fu Qing and Huang Mei from Xinhua contributed to this story.

(China Daily USA 04/03/2014 page5)