July 12th, 2012 | Global Times Behind Shifang
In Shifang, Sichuan Province, where thousands of local residents took to the streets in protest of a copper refinery that was feared as a source of serious pollution in early July, the situation remains tense despite a government promise to scrap the unwelcome factory.
Reportedly, six protesters were held in detention and may face criminal charges for actions from attacking police cars to pelting government officials with bricks and stones.
A video of one youngster pleading guilty for spreading rumor online that one protester died was broadcasted on local television as a warning to residents.
“I am just afraid the government is going to settle its scores,” Zhou Jing, a clothes shop owner said. Zeng Jing, a local villager, was warned by relatives working for the government to delete all photos she have taken during the protest and to avoid going near the government compound.
Situation remains tense
More than 10 days have gone and order has returned to the small town, known as a tourist attraction in Sichuan Province. But the yawning gulf between the local government and the residents will not swiftly be closed.
“How can they treat us like common rabble, attacking with tear gas and stun grenades? We just want to protect our beautiful homeland,” protester Wang Siqi, a sophomore at Sichuan Normal University, said with rage. Wang was hit with a baton when she went to the aid of another protester being beaten by armed police.
Wang was among those in Shifang who took to the street in early July and protested against the $1.6 billion copper-molybdenum refining facility.
The city government called off the project on July 3, four days after construction was started on the Hongda copper plant. Following this, the city’s Party secretary Li Chengjin was swiftly demoted.
Similar protests are happening more frequently as China pursues fast economic growth. In August last year, thousands of protesters took to the street against a paraxylene factory in Dalian, Liaoning Province.
These protests reflect the lack of transparency concerning government-led projects and growing awareness of environmental causes among the public. This has led to scrutiny being poured on shortsighted development strategies that sacrifice environmental protection for economic growth.
Not enough information
Had it not been for a grand launch ceremony on June 29, most people in Shifang would not be aware that the copper plant even existed.
Residents dashed to the ceremony, wanting to get more information about the project. They were kept clear behind the security line.
“Obviously they wanted to hide things from us,” said He Huiniang, a local resident who took a bus to get to the ceremony but was prevented from entering.
Word spread like lightning through the town. Fears quickly grew that the factory would pollute the drinking supply, the air and the ground.
On June 30, some residents petitioned the local government and requested the project be nixed.
On July 1, thousands of residents, mostly middle school and college students, took to the street in another protest. Some held banners declaring “Shifang people drive away Hongda and protect our beautiful homeland.” Armed police were dispatched from neighboring towns to maintain order. The street where the government office was located was blocked off by police.
On July 2, the conflicts intensified as some demonstrators broke the cordon and stormed into the government office, destroying windows and publicity hoardings. A police car was reportedly overturned.
The police shot tear gas and stun grenades into the crowd, injuring many who were taken to hospital.
On July 3, the government announced they would call off the project. Despite this announcement, the crowds were not dispersed until 11 pm who demanded that those arrested during the protests be released.
The local government admitted their fault concerning the lack of awareness about the project. It admitted “improper actions in dealing with the conflict, since petitioners and bystanders were injured,” Chen Lin, a press official from the Shifang government told China Business Journal.
The incident captured national attention and was widely discussed online. Many Web users say the police involved should be held responsible for their misconduct of the protests.
Official statistics showed 13 people were injured. However, according to a list obtained by the Global Times, at least 30 people were injured and received treatment at the local No.2 People’s Hospital by July 3.
The local government said it would cover all medical fees.
Public distrust growing
People say they were furious because the government kept them in the dark about the project and the risks it might bring.
“When we approached the village committee members and asked about the risks of a project like this, they were vague,” said Zhou Zhongyuan, a shop owner in Yinchi village, only 100 meters away from the planned factory.
“The government keeps talking about improving our livelihoods, but they did not care about the possible pollution it might cause,” he told the Global Times.
According to the Institute of Industrial Economics from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, copper collecting, smelting and refining can produce mercury, sulphur dioxide, arsenic and other pollutants.
The government issued a statement after the protests, claiming that the project of Shanghai-listed Sichuan Hongda, one of China’s biggest zinc and lead producers, was approved by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and met the highest environment standards.
“At the beginning of this dispute, the local government said the copper was a heavy metal that is essential to the human body and told us not to worry about it. What complete trash,” Ma Lan, a salesman, told the Global Times.
The local government said they’ve attached great importance and taken specific measures on bridging the authorities and the residents.
Officials were dispatched to visit families, the injured being treated in hospitals and collected their public opinions on July 4 to 5, publicity official Chen Lin said.
“We would try hard to deal with practical problems raised by the local residents,” the publicity official Chen Lin told the Global Times, without identifying what these problems are.
Distrust in the government has been brewing in Shifang ever since reconstruction began after the 2008 earthquake. It is widely accepted that the reconstruction work made officials rich and brought little benefits to local residents.
“We’re venting our anger by protesting. Shifang people have long been disappointed by the officials,” Wang Yaochuan, a middle-aged protester told the Global Times, adding that the corruption seen during the rebuilding of quake-stricken areas had made people furious.
In the village of Yinchi, a 2-meter wide dirt road that connects the national highway to the village, remains rough despite the central government allocating millions of yuan to help the village rebuild. The village head refused to be interviewed for this story.
“How come the road remains in such a bad condition if the money was used properly?” Zhou Zhongyuan asked. Zhou paid nearly 100,000 yuan to build a wooden house after the major part of his brick house collapsed. The local government provided 28,000 yuan for house repairs to each family.
Zeng Jing, a villager in Luoshui, said some of her relatives were still living in condemned houses, four years after the earthquake.
Since then, 1.4 billion yuan ($213 million) were embezzled or transferred to non-rebuilding projects from the earthquake relief funds by local governments in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces by the end of 2010, statistics from the National Audit Office showed.
Locals believe the government officials have direct economic interests in the copper plant. A list of local officials who are also independent directors in the Hongda company went viral on Sina Weibo, which could not be verified.
“It is difficult to restrain the absolute power of government officials, and this is rife ground for corruption,” Zhou Zhongwei, an expert from the Institute of Industrial Economics from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times. He recommended that environmental protection be given more importance when assessing officials’ work performance, alongside investment and GDP growth.
New generation of protesters
This unrest provided a platform for China’s youngest generation, those born after 1990, to be at the forefront of the three-day demonstration, exposing a greater civic interest and caring after generations that had been widely decried as apathetic.
The protests were initially organized online by students.
“We launched several chat rooms on the Internet and called on more students to take part from the very beginning,” Cao Yang, a 16-year-old student who demonstrated alongside his classmates, told the Global Times.
Lü Heng, an 18-year-old electric welder who participated in the protest and helped send the injured to hospitals said he was changed by the incident.
“I was indifferent about things related to government affairs, but now, I know the importance of fighting for our own rights,” Lü admitted.
Of some 20 people detained by police during the protests, most were students.
By Liang Chen in Shifang