China: Major clashes at anti-pollution demonstrations in Xiamen

Eastern China sees largest urban protest movement for many years

The eastern coastal city of Xiamen, Fujian province, has witnessed what are probably the biggest urban-based demonstrations in China since the movement against state sector sackings and privatisation in the northeast in 2002.

The struggle centres on opposition to the construction of a potentially hazardous chemical plant in what is known as "China’s cleanest city". The plant, part-owned by fugitive Taiwanese businessman, Chen You-hao, would produce the chemical paraxylene, known by its abbreviation "PX", a petrochemical used in the production of plastics, polyester and film. PX is considered highly toxic, and has been linked to birth defects in animals. PX boss, Chen, is wanted in Taiwan accused of stealing 185 million yuan from a company there. Xiamen’s authorities gave the green light last November for the plant to be built beside a residential area of 100,000 people. International safety standards say such production must be located 100km from any residential area.

This movement is of enormous significance for all those fighting environmental destruction, and for socialism and democratic rights in China and around the world. There are reports of students taking over their universities and entire workplaces walking out to join the demonstrations.

"The protesters were mobilised by mobile phone (SMS) messages," Li Wanwan from Xiamen told China Worker, confirming media reports that a million SMS messages were circulated in the last two months as part of the mass campaign against the plant.

This highlights a growing problem for China’s ruling ’communist’ party (CCP) in a country with 460 million mobile phone owners. Even some of the poorest sections of society, migrants and poor peasants own a mobile phone, which is essential in today’s world, to get a job, or keep in touch with children and close family members who may live thousands of kilometres away.

But modern communications and the internet are also increasingly a weapon against authoritarian rule and censorship. The Chinese regime spends billions every year policing cyberspace, with 40,000 internet police and the most sophisticated spy software, courtesy of US multinational companies like Microsoft and Cisco. Still, the rising protest movement in China is finding a way around these controls. The Xiamen protests can be viewed on Youtube.

Because of the way the movement has grown in so short a time, Xiamen is not just an impressive example of environmental activism. It represents a major challenge to the CCP and the government centrally and not just in Xiamen.

"Stopping PX was just the match, starting a fire," says Cheng, a socialist who like others around China is watching Xiamen closely. "The people initially wanted to show their opinions on this important environmental issue. But they found their right to show their opinions is stopped, so finally, they begin demanding their democratic rights," he explains.

Xiamen shows, once again, that the Chinese regime despite its ’communist’ trappings serves the interests of the big corporations and capital. In words, the CCP is committed to reversing the country’s environmental collapse – six of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in China and 400,000 people die prematurely every year as a result of worsening air pollution. But in practice, when this public commitment clashes with money interests, the latter almost always win the day.

Partial victory

The decision to build a PX plant was not just a local decision by the Xiamen authorities. It was approved at the top level by the State Development and Reform Commission and supposedly underwent an environmental assessment which gave it the go ahead. But this assessment was of course not made public, it was not even made available to members of the decorative Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC), an advisory body to the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress (NPC), ostensibly China’s parliament.

Over 100 members of the CPPCC supported calls for the project to be halted. Professors from Xiamen’s university also identified openly with the campaign against the plant. These stirrings at the top, within the ruling party, undoubtedly encouraged the protest movement from below. But in and of itself, this internal dissent would not have produced the current crisis and searching for a way out by Xiamen’s government. As the website Asia Sentinal (1 June) reports, "It wasn’t until the issue was picked up by alarmed Xiamen internet and SMS users that it exploded into real public view."

Then, last week, Xiamen’s protesters scored a partial victory in forcing the city government to ’freeze’ plans for the new plant. The question being discussed now in schools, workplaces and cafes throughout the city is: what way forward to stop the project altogether?

Beating a partial retreat is a classical tactic employed by China’s ruling party to defuse a potentially dangerous situation. By using both "carrot" and "stick" – i.e. combining concessions and repression – they hope to defuse the movement. Once demobilised, they calculate it is harder for the movement to pick up strength again, easier for the authorities to strike at the ’ring leaders’ thereby spreading fear about future challenges against officialdom.

But it is becoming increasingly difficult for the CCP to use this timeworn recipe. Xiamen’s protesters were not fooled by the city government’s offer of a six-month "review" process, temporarily postponing the PX project. ‘Stop construction, postponement is not enough!’ was a key demand on the demonstrations. The decision to push ahead with the marches, despite the partial retreat by officials, was a big setback for Xiamen’s government.

"They did everything to stop the demo," Li Wanwan told us. "Local schools told students they would be expelled if they took to the streets. And if CCP members joined the march, they were told they would lose their membership and be punished. Despite this, a lot of people went to the streets. "A crowd of up to 20,000, made up of students, school students in their uniforms, workers and pensioners, defied the ruling ’communist’ party and police to stage a demonstration that lasted from 8am to 5pm on Friday 1 June. Marchers carried banners proclaiming ‘Anti-PX – save Xiamen’. Some wore gas masks to protect their identity as police filmed the demo. Although mostly youth, a large group of pensioners told a blogger they were marching "For the next generation, we don’t mind settling accounts this late in life, it’s worth it!"

True to form, the Public Security Bureau (PSB) branded the marchers as "individual lawbreakers" committed to a "highly inflammatory cause". But despite decreeing this to be an "illegal assembly" that was "seriously disrupting the public order", the police did not try to stop the demonstration.

According to Asia Sentinel, protesters "repeatedly charged police lines and the police backed down, letting the marchers through."

The atmosphere was one of jubilation: "People left shops along the route to watch, cheer and join the march. Faces looked down from office and apartment windows. Crowds gathered on fly-overs to look down at the sea of people as they brought traffic in the centre of Xiamen to a standstill." (Asia Sentinel, 1 June)

The movement involves broad layers of the city’s population, over and above those who joined the demonstrations. "Banners against PX have been draped from the top of high-rise buildings on housing estates," Cheng told Chinaworker.

Anniversary of ‘6/4’

The following day, 2 June, the mostly youthful protesters gathered again for a fresh test of the authorities’ resolve. By now, the right to demonstrate – to challenge the authorities – was as important as the PX issue itself. But by Sunday 3rd – with the crucial anniversary looming of ‘6/4’ (the Beijing massacre of 3-4 June, 1989), Xiamen was turned into an occupied city – with police and military units out in force. This spectacle, while president Hu Jintao is in Germany for the G8 summit, does not fit well with his promotion of the Confucian ideal of a "harmonious society"!

Some smaller demonstrations were reported on Sunday by bloggers, but there seems to have been no attempt to seriously defy the massive police presence. As is routine in such situations, Xiamen has been ’blacked out’ on the internet and news media – even the SMS service is out of action on government orders. This is an intensification of the ’electronic warfare’ used at an earlier stage, whereby it was still possible to SMS to each other. But key words were jammed by the government’s sophisticated US-made technology – words like "benzene", "demonstration", "atomic", and "leukaemia".

The CCP is desperate to nip such protest movements in the bud. The longer the Xiamen protests continue, the more politicised they will become. Already, on the first demonstration on Friday, demands against PX were competing for airtime with more sensitive political slogans – for the resignation of the city’s party boss, He Lifeng. Several reports indicate the main topic of discussion among protesters was democracy. As in all such situations, once the masses begin to move, even under conditions of dictatorship, which tends to throw back political consciousness, their outlook changes from one day to the next.

Xiamen: the next step?

Whether the movement in Xiamen subsides or flares up again remains to be seen. But the importance of this movement should not be lost on socialists and all those fighting for change. It shows how quickly a movement can flare up and even in the complete absence of legal organisations or democratic means for mobilising – meetings, leaflets, posters – workers and youth can display enormous creativity and improvisation. It also shows the depth of distrust of the authorities that the last-minute retreat by Xiamen’s party bosses – with the obvious aim of derailing Friday’s protest march – failed, and the protest went ahead. The instinct of Xiamen’s protesters is correct. In 2002, in order to clear the streets of demonstrations in Liaoyang, Daqing and other northeastern hot spots, local party bosses promised all kinds of concessions – payment of wage arrears, even new jobs. Most of these offers were reneged on afterwards, once the movement had been demobilised. By then a few hundred arrests had been made and other activists were placed under 24-hour surveillance to deter them from meeting to organise new actions.

The key to the success of Xiamen’s protest movement, and other similar movements, is organisation. It seems clear that impressive work has been done by students and other groups in organising the demonstrations of the last few days. What is needed now is to spread this organisation as widely as possible in order to make it much harder for the state to crush it. In every workplace and school, anti-PX committees should be set up to discuss and plan for future action, protecting themselves from interference where necessary. The police and military mobilisation over this weekend cannot be sustained indefinitely, in a modern city of 1.5 million; it would interfere with normal work and soon alienate even more people.

A new date for a protest should be set, unless the city government give an unequivocal promise that the idea of building the PX plant is not just postponed but completely dead.

This is the only sure way to keep up the struggle. If the party bosses do not call off the entire project, their phoney ‘review process’ should be boycotted and exposed for the farce it is. Who needs a new review? A million Xiamen people have discussed this issue extensively; they are arguably among the most informed people anywhere in the world about the dangers associated with mass production of PX. They have already reached a decision – the plant must be stopped. This represents a mass, democratic and popular ‘review process’ – no further investigation is necessary, especially not by a few unelected bureaucrats and their capitalist friends behind closed doors!

Socialists, workers and environmental activists internationally should be on standby if repression is used against alleged ’leaders’ of the Xiamen protests. In this case the Chinese authorities and their embassies everywhere must be deluged with protests demanding the dropping of charges and showing support for the Xiamen struggle.

Should the masses in Xiamen win this struggle it will set an important precedent. This is why it arouses such fear in the ruling party. In rural areas, as in Guangxi today, brutal force has been employed to try to quell mass protests. But to do this in the urban areas is immeasurably more difficult. The "no violence" appeals on Xiamen’s demonstrations were absolutely correct, but need to be built upon. The demonstrators should appeal to the police and soldiers to support the movement. They, and their children, will also suffer if the PX project goes ahead.

Workers must also discuss taking strike action building upon the spontaneous walkouts reported last week. Strikes – by hitting the bosses squarely in their pockets – represent a more serious and effective form of struggle. Students and school students may already be discussing school strikes and occupations, which, while they do not directly affect production, do show a way to struggle and can inspire workers to follow suit. In the course of such a struggle many lessons will be learned about organisation, how to resist repression, and what slogans and tactics are needed to take a mass movement forward to victory. As part of the ongoing discussion on these important issues, Chinaworker puts forward the following programmatical points for discussion:

  • Stop PX – Save Xiamen!
  • No more ‘reviews’ – the people have spoken!
  • Out with He Lifeng and his entire ‘PX government’ – Xiamen is not safe in their hands! For an independent, democratically-controlled enquiry into the links between Xiamen’s ruling officials and the suspected criminal businessman, Chen You-hao.
  • Open the books! Publish all documentation on the PX affair – on the internet!
  • Build democratic committees in schools, universities and workplaces – prepare the next step.
  • Workplaces should discuss strike action if the government refuses to back down. Democratic, independent and fighting trade unions are needed.
  • Similarly at schools and universities: democratic and fighting student organisations are needed – independent of CCP-state control.
  • For nationalisation without compensation of all polluting companies. These ‘weapons of mass destruction’ must be made safe under public control on the basis of democratic workers’ control and management.
  • Opposition to capitalism and authoritarian rule which are the underlying cause of environmental destruction.

Background and other mass protests

The Chinese regime is terrified that acts of public defiance such as those in Xiamen – to its rule, its police, and its ban on all demonstrations – can act as a catalyst for the massive social discontent that exists across the country.

The government recently reported there had been 17,900 "mass incidents" during the first nine months of 2006, which means a drop of 22 percent on the same period in 2005. Whether this reduction is real or a ’manipulation’ of statistics, the fact remains China is far from stable. While Xiamen’s youthful protesters were challenging the police, there were two days of violent clashes in the poor, nominally ’autonomous’ province of Guangxi. Villagers, many from ethnic minorities like the Zhuang, continue to rebel against the brutal enforcement of birth control policies by local CCP bosses.

Two weeks ago in Guangxi, as reported on China Worker, as many as 50,000 battled with riot police in seven different towns, in one case demolishing a wall and part of a local government headquarters. Five demonstrators were reportedly killed in the protests, against massive fines and confiscation of household property as punishment for having ’unauthorised’ children. Meanwhile, also last week, in Yentai, an industrial city in Shandong province, a reported 2,000 ex-soldiers and state sector retirees protested at government offices over non-payment of their meagre pensions.

Socially, China is balancing on a knife’s edge – with too many economic and political grievances to list here.

"Dissatisfaction is widely rising in China, not only in Xiamen," Cheng tells Chinaworker. "The slump on the stock market due to the Beijing government tripling the stamp tax on shares has caused a lot of anger. The government announced this move at midnight – people feel cheated! China is not like other stock markets, mature markets. A lot of ordinary citizens joined the stock market since the start of this year," he explains.

In total there are now over 100 million individuals trading on the stock market. The number has been rising by a million a week as many invest their pensions and savings, looking for a higher return than the paltry 2 percent interest on bank deposits. "On all the financial websites there is now enormous anger," says Cheng. "But this also coincides with big increases in food prices, especially pork which has risen 30 per cent. This is a big blow for many working class people."

Other foods like fish and eggs have risen on the back of pork as wholesalers speculate. This is fanning public anger. Wage increases continue to lag far behind the rate of growth of the economy, while a super-rich elite openly flaunts its wealth. China had 250,000 US-dollar-millionaire households in 2005, ranking it sixth in the world, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group.

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June 2007