Protests staged since Sunday against a planned paraxylene (PX) plant in Maoming City of south China's Guangdong Province seemed to die down on Wednesday. But the quandary for a local government seeking a balance between development and stability never ends.
More than 1,000 locals have protested in front of Maoming's government building, in scenes that reflect growing public opposition across China to projects deemed dangerous or polluting. The Maoming protestors have smashed office windows and billboards in a display of their anger over the mooted local production of PX, a commonly used petrochemical.
Though the government pledged on Monday to consult the public before progressing the PX facility, protests continued into a third day. They even spread to Guangzhou on Tuesday, when hundreds rallied near the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, close to the Guangdong provincial government office.
Liang Luoyue, deputy head of the Maoming municipal government, met with representatives of the protesters on Tuesday afternoon and reaffirmed the promise of public consultation.
Liang said the government will strengthen communication with residents and expand channels for them to express their demands through meeting with government officials, media and the Internet.
Meanwhile, the Maoming government's desire to promote the PX project is strong, as shown in the 100,000 brochures sent to local homes.
"The PX project will add about 10,000 jobs and increase tax revenues by 674 million yuan (109.6 million U.S. dollars) every year," the brochures read.
They classify PX as a combustible chemical with low toxicity and say there is not enough evidence to link it with cancer.
The government has also run a publicity campaign since late February in local newspapers, trying to disperse fears on the project's safety risks.
However, rather than calming readers, the propaganda appears only to have inspired the protests.
"As common people, we only care about our living environment," said a local resident surnamed Zhang. "If the environment is ruined, what good are tax revenues?"
Growing public upset over pollution, and a lack of communication between local authorities and citizens has meant that antipathy to PX projects is becoming more common.
For many in Maoming, a series of deadly oil pipeline blasts in a petrochemical base in east China's Shandong Province in November rammed home the potential danger of having a similar facility on their doorstep. The explosions in Shandong's Qingdao City left 55 people dead and nine missing.
Maoming, which has a population of seven million, already boasts the largest petrochemical base in south China.
Since 2007, planned PX projects in Xiamen, Dalian, Ningbo and Kunming have been canceled after residents protested. It is not yet clear if the Maoming government will follow suit.
BOON OR BANE
Experts and local residents are divided on the safety risks of PX, while there is serious concern about meeting domestic demand for the chemical, a major raw material for making polyester products.
China was the world's largest consumer of PX in 2013. It consumed 16 million tons of the stuff, more than half of which was imported from overseas, according to Chang Yizhi, a chemical industry researcher with CIConsulting, a leading Chinese industrial consultancy.
While PX project launches have stalled in China under the storm of protests, Singapore's Jurong Aromatics Corporation is building a huge 2.4-billion-U.S.dollar aromatics complex with an annual processing capacity of 800,000 tons of PX, among other chemicals.
Delays to improving China's self-sufficiency in PX supply will force Chinese companies to continue bulk purchases from the international market, said Chang.
A guidance plan released by the Guangdong government in October 2009 envisioned Maoming as a world-class petrochemical base. With an annual production capacity of 600,000 tons, the planned PX plant was obviously one of the fundamentals to achieve that goal.
The project is also listed in China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).
The Maoming branch of Sinopec, China's largest refinery, is confident of carrying out the PX project without safety risks.
"PX is not a new thing," said Wang Qiwen, a manager with the company. "PX production has a 30-year history in China and there are 16 PX programs currently running in the country."
"PX has no technology risks and no major accidents have happened in the sector so far," added another company executive, without giving his name.
While one member of Sinopec staff told Xinhua that PX pollution was most likely to happen during storage and transportation, he said that any leakage from petrochemical facilities would likely harm the environment.
The Maoming branch of Sinopec will invite residents to examine existing equipment, facilities and manufacturing processes elsewhere to relieve their anxiety and take their feedback, said a senior executive on condition of anonymity.
But some locals are determined to drive the project away from the city.
"PX projects have been opposed everywhere," said Maoming resident Lin Shuiqun. "Maoming already has a petrochemical plant and the air quality is pretty bad. How can we survive with another PX project?"
The situation is a test for the local government, said Yu Zhangbao, a professor with Xiamen University.
He attributed unanimous opposition to PX projects to lack of communication between officials and the public, and a dearth of platforms for the public to express their opinions and question the government's safety management.
The local government should set up a mechanism to communicate with residents and a compensation mechanism to make up for the safety risks they undertake, Yu said.
"Residents will only support the project if they benefit from it," the academic added.