Protests in Maoming in China’s southern Guangdong province over a planned paraxylene (PX) project plant continue to grow and have spread to neighboring Shenzhen.
The demonstrations began on March 30, 2014 when about 1,000 Maoming residents rallied against the project over environmental and health concerns. Clashes between security forces and protesters reportedly left some injured, with rumors that some people were even killed.
The country has seen a series of anti-PX protests since 2007, but unlike previous demonstrations, this time Chinese state media gave them coverage.
However, most of the coverage and commentary tried to play down the violence and emphasized the importance and benefits of PX production in China.
People’s Daily dismissed the injured and dead as rumors and claimed the public has exaggerated the dangers of PX.
Xinhua said the protests exposed “local government's struggle between development and stability.” The piece outlined the Maoming government’s effort to gain public support for the PX plant:
The Maoming government's desire to promote the PX project is strong, as shown in the 100,000 brochures sent to local homes.”The PX project will add about 10,000 jobs and increase tax revenues by 674 million yuan (109.6 million U.S. dollars) every year,” the brochures read. They classify PX as a combustible chemical with low toxicity and say there is not enough evidence to link it with cancer.
An editorial published in Global Times claimed that since the victory of Xiamen’s anti-PX campaign in 2007, which successfully pressured authorities to transfer the plant to another city, the public’s opposition to major chemical projects has become “irrational”. The editorial cited the benefits of PX projects in Korea and Singapore and suggested that the local government in Maoming should not trade the PX project for short-term stability:
We don’t believe all planned PX projects in China in recent years are unreasonable, full of environmental dangers. Therefore, a strong local government is needed so that it can withstand pressure, be capable and patient in negotiating with the public. Can Maoming act this way? We don't know. But we look forward to positive results.
This is selfish. Such selfish behavior will result in greater risks in environmental and sustainable projects on a larger scale. People who are familiar with the PX industry know that PX prices have been fixed by a few countries abroad. On the low end of the PX industrial chain is China, but the high end is controlled by others. To turn the tide on the situation, you need more PX projects to make the industry catch up or exceed competitors.
However, China Daily acknowledged the lack of trust and lack of transparency:
For a local government, it is not a matter of just dissuading local residents from opposing the project, it is a matter of establishing their own trustworthiness among local residents.
What makes things even worse is the fact that many local governments are yet to develop the habit of communicating openly with residents. Neither do most of them have the awareness that transparency can be a way to reduce and dispel the mistrust between them and residents.