By BRIAN SPEGELE
BEIJING -- As news spread earlier this year that China's
government had approved a refinery and petrochemicals base near Kunming in
southwest China to process crude piped in from Myanmar, a
51-year-old local environmental activist named Zheng
Xiejian started disseminating leaflets denouncing the project.
Two months later, campaigning
by people such as Mr. Zheng has ballooned into full-fledged
protest against the facility, which is part of a bid to
strengthen energy infrastructure in landlocked southwest China
and connect it with plentiful oil and gas imports.
On Thursday, for the second time this month, hundreds of
demonstrators in downtown Kunming demanded authorities scrap
plans to produce the chemical paraxylene, or PX, at the site
and called for the refining base to be relocated
farther from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.
The protests have forced the local government to take steps
to engage the demonstrators, somewhat unusual in a country
where open dissent can invite harsh retribution. Local leaders
have pledged to take public opinion into account, a vow echoed
in China's state-run media. Kunming's mayor, Li Wenrong, on
Thursday stepped out on the city streets to reason with
protesters, and Friday opened an account on China's Sina Weibo
social-media service to show he wanted to hear public
Within an hour Friday morning, Web users flooded the account
with 4,000 responses. Mr. Li thanked Web users for their
concerns and pledged to respond quickly. He signed off the
message with a smiley face.
For China National Petroleum Corp., which built schools and
hospitals to ease opposition in Myanmar to its pipeline, the
unexpected fervor of protests at home have increased pressure
for transparency. Attempts to reach a CNPC spokesman for
comment were unsuccessful.
The case has highlighted a new reality for businesses and
officials in China: A burgeoning middle class increasingly
resents the hazardous pollution levels choking many Chinese
Mr. Zheng, like many of the protesters, learned of the
project only after online users began seizing on it in February
and March. Local media reports of the refinery's approval by the National
Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic
planning agency, was the first many Yunnan residents had heard
any details of the planned facility.
On March 16, as prominent Chinese social critic Li Chengpeng
participated in a book signing in Kunming, Mr. Zheng arrived to
distribute a leaflet, calling for a public referendum and an
independent assessment of the project's impact. He says he was
quickly detained by police who questioned him for some time
before releasing him.
Later, Mr. Zheng put out a call online for fellow Kunming
residents to join a demonstration in early April. The turnout
was small. During the subsequent weeks, police repeatedly
called on him to "drink tea," as people in China
euphemistically describe being called in by the
"They told me not to concern myself with this issue," he
Others did. One, a 29-year-old designer and Kunming native
who gave her surname as Zhang, watched online discussion of the
issue with growing alarm. At the end of April and the beginning
of May, explicit instructions began flying across Weibo: Meet
in front of Kunming's main department store at 1:30 on May 4 to
"go for a walk," a popular euphemism in China for protesting.
It was her first protest.
"I was moved," Ms. Zhang said. "We're all fond of Yunnan. We
cherish our environment."
"We don't oppose PX production itself," said Mr. Zheng.
"What we oppose is the production of PX at an unsafe
A survey released this month by Shanghai Jiao Tong
University found that more than three-quarters of respondents
said they would be willing to petition against polluting
Earlier this week, a Chinese battery maker said it withdrew
plans for a new lithium-battery plant in Shanghai. Last year,
the planned expansion of a refinery and petrochemicals facility in the
eastern city of Ningbo was halted following days of
Public-health concerns are one reason for the delay,
particularly in the case of PX production. High exposure to PX
can damage the nervous system and cause respiratory irritation,
according to US government reports. Industry analysts and
officials say it can be produced safely including near urban
areas. Fears of it rose significantly in China two years ago
after a storm in the northeastern city of Dalian sparked fears
of a spill there.
Authorities and state enterprises are still finding ways to
bring online new production of PX, a chemical used to make
polyester and plastic bottles and is in increasing demand as
China's appetite for consumer goods grows. After 2007 protests
in the city of Xiamen, for example, authorities moved the
planed PX facility to a location roughly 30 miles inland.
Chemical-industry experts say China's plans to push production
of PX appears on track.
Still, makers of chemicals and other industrial products say
they are taking note. "Awareness is much higher than in the
past," said Albert Heuser, president and chairman for greater
China at Germany's BASF. "This is normal in the development of
an emerging society."
The planned refinery near Kunming is a key
stopping point for CNPC's $2.5 billion oil-and-gas pipeline project, which connects Myanmar with
southwestern China. While its fate remains unclear, it is
unlikely the environmental protests would derail
the broader effort to transport crude via pipeline through
A final decision on what chemical to produce at the facility
near Kunming hadn't been made, said a senior executive from
Yuntianhua Group, a company responsible for petrochemicals production at the refining base.
In Kunming, authorities continued to pressure potential
protesters. Professors warned university students they must not
skip class, while companies pressured employees not to
participate, according to people who attended the protests.
A protester said he was detained as soon as he attempted to
don a gas mask at the gathering Thursday. Police demanded his
name and phone number, as well as information about his
employer. The man was warned not to participate in further
protests, he said.
Dow Jones Newswires