PX Protest in Kunming, China

On March 30, residents of the city of Maoming in Guangdong province clashed with police in the streets during protests against the building of a paraxylene (PX) chemical plant. Recent years have seen a number of similar large-scale protests against PX projects.

No other type of industrial project is as strongly opposed by the Chinese public, and in a way these protests are outlets for the frustrations built up due to the public being unable to participate in environmental protection. Is PX being unfairly treated? Yes, because projects of equal risk have not acquired such a negative aura and have gone ahead. But PX now has an image problem, and that will not disappear easily. Why so? Because the public knows the script: they protest, the government backs down. They will not easily accept that there might be an alternative ending.

Unfortunately, since the first PX protests in Xiamen in 2007 the same scenario has played out again and again, in different cities and with different companies. First, rumours circulate that a PX plant is being built. Gossip spreads and eventually the public take to the streets. The government comes forward to speak up for the project, but it will be relocated, cancelled, or never heard of again.

The same old arguments are played out: does PX cause cancer? How toxic is it? Is there an international “safe distance” from residential areas? The government clarifications are the same: PX is an important ingredient in artificial fibers. They make PX overseas too. PX is not that toxic. Reporters could almost find their articles from last time, change the place and company names, and republish.

The public automatically plays its part in this routine, leading events to a pre-determined conclusion, as that is their role. Other important actors also play their usual parts, helping to ensure the story doesn’t change.

Let’s look at one of the main actors of the piece, the local government. It has its own interests, but must also be seen to be fair. The audience thinks it knows what the government is up to and is determined not to be fooled. Some local governments just think they haven’t been good enough at looking fair, so they find Tsinghua professors and industry experts to help make their case.

In Maoming the government became an interested party as early as 2009, when it made clear its stance in a provincial plan for the petrochemical industry making construction of a 600,000 tonne-a-year PX facility in Maoming a priority. Few will then believe the government when it later insists that the plant’s environmental protection measures will be “comprehensive, mature, reliable and effective.” And local governments seem to get a bit carried away in their act, becoming guarantors and chest-thumping advocates for the companies, rather than standing back and providing systematic explanations or guidance. This just confirms the public stereotype: they’re all in it together.

To break out of these roles we need a new script, not new actors. The public needs to know they’re in a new show and it might have a new ending. Local government must stop acting as an interested party and become a referee, with no pre-determined view on any particular project, whose most important job is to ensure the legally mandated procedures are strictly followed, that laws and regulations are implemented, and that the final decision is legitimate. But this is easier said than done.

Take the Maoming government. In the last several years it has repeatedly failed to carry out the proper procedures for environmental protection in petrochemical projects. An article in Oriental Outlook told of projects being built without approval, or approvals being issued in breach of regulations. In 2004, work started on a 1 million tonne ethylene plant before the environmental impact assessment report had been passed. That report was only passed by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2008 and as of last year the plant was still under special government supervision.

In 2009 the provincial environmental authorities approved an upgrade of the Maoming refinery in breach of regulations, forcing the MEP to rescind the approval and demand another assessment in 2010. With this kind of record, how is the public to trust the government to carry out the proper procedures?

And there are other problems than just a lack of trust that local governments will implement the proper decision-making procedures. They still cannot stop themselves interfering in the economy. Local industrial plans are often so specific that particular companies and projects are named, even though many do not involve government investment. The government is already a supporter of these projects; it can hardly expect to act temporarily as an arbiter of interests.  

When procedures are not implemented, the policymaking spills out onto the street, in the climax of China’s PX play. But that means all possible compromises on location, methods and pollution control measures are forgotten in favour of a build-or-not-build, all-or-nothing game.

If one day the interested parties are able to sit down for methodical negotiations we will know we finally have public participation in environmental protection. But to achieve that, we need to change the script.

Image: Environmental protest in Kunming, Southern China, 2013. © Grace Tan