Skip to main content

Protest halts construction of copper plant in southwestern China

By Steven Jiang, CNN
July 4, 2012 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Residents were worried about the possible release of toxic pollutants from the plant
  • The Shifang government says 13 people were injured in clashes Monday
  • Popular protests succeeded in closing other chemical plants and derailing a high-speed rail line

Beijing (CNN) -- Bowing to intense pressure from local residents, authorities in a southwestern Chinese city abandoned plans to build a controversial billion-dollar chemical plant, the local government announced Tuesday afternoon.

Earlier -- defying government orders -- residents of Shifang, in Sichuan Province, continued to rally against the planned construction of a molybdenum copper plant despite an official pledge to halt the project, a protester told CNN.

The crowd on the streets thinned considerably after anti-riot police forcibly broke up thousands of protesting residents Monday afternoon, said the protester, who asked that her name not be used for fear of government reprisal.

Widely circulated images on Chinese social media sites showed police dispersing unarmed protesters with batons and tear gas, and included images of residents -- including women and the elderly -- covered in blood.

China cracks down on shark fin soup
World's biggest banks from China
Unlocking China's business potential

In several statements, the Shifang government said 13 residents suffered minor injuries in the clashes Monday but denied anyone had died. Warning residents to end the "illegal protests" immediately, authorities also defended police actions as a last-resort response to an increasingly unruly mob.

The demonstration started late Sunday, two days after officials broke ground on the controversial $1.6 billion Hongda Molybdenum Copper project, which they insisted had passed all environmental evaluations. Unconvinced local residents, worried about long-term pollution caused by the heavy metal plant, started gathering in the city center to demand the construction be stopped, according to government statements.

They were concerned about health problems caused by potentially substantial releases of various toxic pollutants into the local environment. Those pollutants are released into air through smoke, and into ground and water supplies through the slag waste, a byproduct of a refinery's production process that often includes elements like arsenic.

Despite rainy weather, the crowd swelled Monday to thousands as angry residents took to the streets, chanting slogans and unfurling banners that read "protect Shifang's environment and give us back our beautiful home," according to photos and videos posted online by protesters.

After the mayor's promise to suspend construction failed to reassure the crowd, some demonstrators hurled water bottles and potted plants at police and overturned official vehicles, forcing officers to disperse the crowd with tear gas and stun grenades, the government said.

But Chinese residents on the country's social media sites appear to have overwhelmingly supported protesters and their cause, and condemned the local government for its crackdown. Many have also applauded Shifang business owners who posted "no police allowed" signs outside their restaurants and stores after Monday's violent clashes.

In a subtle sign of its dissatisfaction over local authorities' handling of the situation, the government in Beijing has so far remained largely silent, continuing to allow messages and images of the protest to be uploaded online.

Experts say the Shifang episode has again highlighted the rising danger in China's behind-closed-doors environmental evaluation process.

"This is a typical case in which the lack of public participation in the decision-making process leads to greater confusion and conflicts between government and the general public," said Ma Jun, a prominent environmentalist and head of the Beijing-based Institute of Public Environmental Affairs.

"In this case, the ideal solution is to re-evaluate the whole project to set an example for the future."

"Another problem is that there's no guarantee our existing regulations can be faithfully implemented," he added. "We've had similar cases before and now apparently the public awareness has grown significantly."

The protest in Shifang is the latest example of China's urban residents -- long considered the main beneficiaries of the government's economic reforms -- banding together, often via the Internet, to defend their rights.

Last August, a large protest prompted authorities in the northeastern port city of Dalian to shut down a controversial chemical plant that produced paraxylene (PX), an allegedly carcinogenic compound used in the production of polyester films and fabrics.

In 2008, residents in Shanghai worried about radiation risks took to the streets to protest the construction of a high-speed rail line using the magnetic levitation technology, forcing the government to suspend the project indefinitely. And in 2007, residents in the southeastern city of Xiamen marched against a local PX plant, which eventually moved out of the city.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0414 GMT (1214 HKT)
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 0437 GMT (1237 HKT)
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 0638 GMT (1438 HKT)
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 0812 GMT (1612 HKT)
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 0013 GMT (0813 HKT)
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0654 GMT (1454 HKT)
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT