May 30, 2007 / 7:00 AM / 13 years ago

China city suspends chemical plant after uproar

BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese citizens alarmed about pollution won a rare victory on Wednesday when a city froze a chemical project after angry residents joined in opposition through a flood of mobile phone text messages.

Dark clouds cover the sky in Xiamen, eastern China's Fujian province May 17, 2006. Xiamen, a port city of about 1.5 million people in eastern China's Fujian province, announced it was halting construction of a plant to make paraxylene (PX), a petrochemical that goes into polyester and fabrics, the official Xinhua news agency reported. REUTERS/China Daily

Xiamen, a port city of about 1.5 million people centered on an island in eastern China’s Fujian province, announced it was halting construction of a plant to make paraxylene (PX), a petrochemical that goes into polyester and fabrics, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Angry locals had denounced the project as an “atomic bomb” threatening the seaside environment, the report said, adding they claimed to have circulated nearly a million mobile phone text messages urging family and friends to protest the plant.

“When this massive toxic chemical product goes into production, that will mean an atomic bomb has been released over all Xiamen island,” said one version of the text message quoted by the Southern Metropolitan Daily.

“We want to live, we want our health!”

The message urged residents to join a street protest, Chinese media reported. “For the sake of future generations, pass this message on to all your Xiamen friends!”

As recently as Tuesday, Chinese media quoted Xiamen officials as vowing the project would go forward despite the outcry.

The abrupt reversal reflected a potent cocktail of public worry about pollution, modern communications, and increasingly assertive citizens, said Zhong Xiaoyong, a freelance writer in Xiamen who opposed the plant.

“It’s a step forward that shows they have to listen to peoples’ worries about the environment, not just in Xiamen but across the country,” Zhong told Reuters by phone.

“Now nobody feels that they can avoid the effects on water, air, soil; and public awareness is growing that this is everybody’s concern, not someone else’s.”

China’s leaders have promised to clean up skies and water degraded by decades of unchecked growth, and environmental agencies are increasingly vocal about officials who push industrial projects without assessing the impact.

But local governments often remain eager to boost employment and revenues even if the environment suffers.

The plant had been under construction 7 km (4.3 miles) from the city centre by the Taiwan-funded Xianglu Group, the China Daily reported on Tuesday.

Debate over the plant began to grow during the annual session of China’s parliament, when 105 members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference — a usually sleepy talkshop — raised doubts about the project, estimated to cost 10.8 billion yuan ($1.4 billion).

Public opposition began to build through the Internet, which remains a lively forum despite government censorship.

“As soon as it enters production, all of Xiamen island and even the densely populated south Fujian peninsula will be caged under a toxic chemical industry cloud,” wrote one local blog author quoted by Phoenix weekly, a Beijing-based current affairs magazine.

Xiamen deputy mayor Ding Guoyan told a news conference the city had received all the approvals needed for the plant, but promised to heed public worries by doing another environmental assessment, Xinhua reported.

A prominent Xiamen scientist who has led opposition to the plant, Zhao Yufen, complained in newspapers she was not shown an environmental impact study that city officials said had cleared the project. She argued the plant should be moved to a less populous place.

Zhong, the writer, said the suspension did not mean the project and the battle over it were finished.

“This means the government is pausing to reconsider, and it could still go forward,” he said. “But at least for now people’s concerns have been heard.”

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