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 opinions.
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 cities.
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 authorities.
"They told me not to concern myself with this issue," he said.
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 location."
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 industries.
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 demonstrations.
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 Myanmar.
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