Chinese authorities on Sunday agreed to shut down a controversial petrochemical plant after thousands of residents in the north-eastern Chinese port city of Dalian took to the streets in an unprecedented mass protest, sparking “minor clashes” with riot police.
The protests were triggered by safety fears in the wake of the typhoon Muifa hitting the area, amid concerns of a possible toxic spill after a dyke guarding the Fujia plant broke.
The Fujia plant in Dalian was manufacturing the chemical paraxylene (PX), which is used in the production of fabric and is carcinogenic.
Authorities said the dyke had been repaired. But mounting fears of a chemical spill following the evacuation of some residents and anger over the lack of public consultations in setting up the plant sparked the protest. The plant is located around 30 km from the city.
Residents, carrying protest signs and some even wearing gas-masks, assembled in the city's main square in front of the municipal government's office on Sunday morning, chanting “Fujia, get out!”.
There were confrontations and “minor scuffles” between protesters and hundreds of riot police, the official Xinhua news agency reported, adding that there were no reports of injuries. The local government issued a statement later saying it had agreed to relocate it.
Environmentalist activists said the protest reflected growing awareness of health issues, as well as a milestone for rising activism in the fast-growing middle-class, in part fuelled by the increasing popularity of social media networks.
Calls for the protest, as well as early photographs of protesters gathering in Dalian, were circulating widely on the Chinese Internet on Sunday morning, but were later censored on popular networking sites such as Sina Weibo, the Chinese Twitter equivalent which is used by more than 140 million people.
Tang Jun, the Communist Party's top official in the city, “tried to appease the crowd” by promising to move the project away from the city, Xinhua reported, adding that the demonstrations still showed no signs of easing even after his address.
Mr. Tang was reportedly greeted with some calls to leave, said users on Weibo.
Posts spread quickly on Sina Weibo early on Sunday carrying information about the mass demonstration, though information was quickly controlled with “all related material.. being scrubbed” from the Internet, according to the China Media Project, an Internet-monitoring website in Hong Kong University.
It reported the protest appeared to be a well-organised demonstration, with pre-planned posters, t-shirts and slogans.
Photographs on Weibo suggested many of the protesters were students, and appeared to be white-collar workers.
By Sunday afternoon, searches for Dalian were being blocked on Weibo.
A similar protest in Guangzhou in 2009 saw hundreds of residents take to the streets to oppose a garbage incinerator project. The event was seen as a landmark case for public awareness of environmental issues in China.
Residents in the southern city of Xiamen also protested against a similar PX plant, funded by a Taiwanese company, in 2007, following which the plant was moved out of the city.