Skip to main content

Chinese police crack down on anti-refinery protests

By Ivan Watson, Dayu Zhang and Lucrezia Seu, CNN
updated 10:54 AM EDT, Thu May 16, 2013
A demonstrator takes part in a protest against a petrochemical plant in southwest China's Yunnan province Thursday.
A demonstrator takes part in a protest against a petrochemical plant in southwest China's Yunnan province Thursday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Photos posted on social media show riot police surrounding demonstrators
  • Protester: "I saw locals scuffling with police, people getting arrested and pulled away"
  • "Every Kunming person cares about this issue," another protester says
  • Opponents fear the plant would produce tons of paraxylene, a carcinogenic chemical

Beijing (CNN) -- Demonstrators braved a heavy police presence and the threat of arrest by massing Thursday in the streets of Kunming, China, to protest the planned construction of a chemical plant, they said.

"It was mostly a peaceful protest," said an activist who asked to be identified only by his family name, Young. "We were singing the national anthem, shouting 'Get out, refinery!' together."

He added, "We were scattered by the heavy police force in the area. I saw locals scuffling with police, people getting arrested and pulled away."

Read more: Can social media clear air over China?

The plant is a hot topic in the city, which is the capital of Yunnan province in southwestern China.

"Every Kunming person cares about this issue," said another Kunming native, a 50-year-old man who said rows of police thwarted his efforts to reach the heart of the protest. "The police kept blocking off the protest, block by block."

Local government officials did not respond to CNN phone calls for comment.

Photos posted on Chinese social media sites showed uniformed and riot police surrounding groups of demonstrators.

The five activists who spoke to CNN asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from Chinese authorities.

The oil refinery and chemical plant would be built in Anning city, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Kunming, according to Xinhua, China's state news agency.

Pollution an economic concern in China
On China: China's role in climate change
On China: Governing pollution
China's environmental challenges

Report: China lax in treating, policing lead poisoning

Opponents fear the chemical plant would produce tons of paraxylene, a carcinogenic chemical identified by the acronym PX.

Several days after a May 4 protest, the Kunming mayor joined executives from the state China National Petroleum Corp. and the Yuntianhua Group for a joint news conference.

"The government will call off the project if most of our citizens say no to it," said Mayor Li Wenrong, according to Xinhua.

The provincial general manager of China National Petroleum Corp. has said the refinery will not use the chemical.

"The project has no PX facilities, nor will it produce PX products," Hu Jingke said, according to Xinhua.

Kunming residents expressed deep distrust of government officials and the state-owned enterprises behind the refinery project.

Several said authorities took draconian measures in the days running up to Thursday's protest in an attempt to prevent demonstrators from taking to the streets.

Opinion: Why booming China needs to act fast

A 25-year-old Kunming native who asked to be identified as Claire told CNN that police detained and interrogated her for more than nine hours after she was caught distributing anti-refinery fliers on a city street Tuesday.

"I understand we need oil refineries," Claire said in a phone interview. She said she opposed this one because "it's just so close to the city and the fact that the whole process was not transparent and we're not allowed to ask questions."

Claire said police accused her of staging an "illegal gathering."

As part of the interrogation, she said, police took her to the print shop where she had made copies of her fliers. Then they escorted her to her parents' home, where they demanded that she erase files about the refinery from her computer. Finally, she said, they threatened her and banned her from attending Thursday's protest.

CNN Blog: Why China's leaders should worry about climate change

"Basically, they're saying if I have this on my record, I won't get any government job or state-owned enterprise job," Claire said.

Several other Kunming residents said students and employees of state-owned companies had been warned not to attend the demonstration.

"Kunming is a beautiful city, where we have cleaner air than any other cities in this country," Young said.

"We fear the refinery will destroy the city's natural environment, and we demanded to see the environmental impact assessment report of this project. But we were rejected by the government who told us it's a 'state secret.' "

An executive from Yuntianhua, which also has a major stake in the chemical plant, told journalists that an environmental impact assessment for the project had not been completed, Xinhua said.

In March, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao promised that health safeguards would be improved and efforts would be made to control air pollution and make water supplies safer.

China air pollution: 'Slightly polluted' or 'hazardous'?

"We should adopt effective measures to prevent and control pollution and change the way we work and live," Wen said.

The emphasis on environmental and health issues comes as China's leaders confront growing anger about choking pollution, contaminated food, and water that is unsafe to drink.

The statistics are staggering. China now burns 3.8 billion tons of coal each year, nearly as much as the rest of the world combined. In January, the smog over Beijing was so thick, it could be seen from space.

China's CO2 emissions rose by 720 million tons in 2011 -- a 9.3% increase. Pollution and dust generated in China have been found as far away as California.

Maintaining blockbuster growth has sometimes come at the expense of environmental protections.

The government has made explicit its intention to weigh environmental regulation against the cost to the economy. But analysts say the public outcry over pollution has tipped the scales.

China has already tried to boost the use of alternative sources of power, setting standards for solar energy installation and switching from coal to gas in some cities.

CNNMoney's Charles Riley contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
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.
updated 2:31 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
updated 12:14 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
updated 2:56 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
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.
updated 4:36 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
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.
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
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.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
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.
updated 2:38 AM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
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.
updated 4:12 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
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.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
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.
updated 8:13 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
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.
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT