State media

Official media on popular opinion in the Xiamen PX affair

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China Newsweek 2007.06.11: "The Power of SMS"

The last issue of China Newsweek (11 June) featured in-depth reports on a number of major events related to government transparency and crisis management - the Xiamen PX demonstrations, the Taihu Lake pollution affair, and the cause of this year's high pork prices.

The cover feature looked at the role of moble and online media in the 1 June demonstration against Xiamen's PX chemical plant. Here's a translation of the main article:

Xiamen PX Incident

Expression of Popular Opinion in the New Media Era
by Xie Liangbing / China Newsweek

Thirty-two-year-old Ye Zi (name changed) received an email from her friend on 26 May. That was her first time to see the English word PX, and the first time that she was aware that in Nandu, Haicang District, not far from her home on Guliangyu Island, a massive PX (paraxylene) chemical plant was being constructed.

In the email from her friend, Xiamen's PX chemical plant project was described thus: starting production "would be like dropping an atomic bomb on Xiamen Island; it would mean that in the future, the people of Xiamen would live in the shadow of leukemia and deformed children." "This really shook me," said Ye Zi, who calls herself a gentle person who's never been one to get excited.

At first, Ye Zi did not believe that this was true. After searching through materials online, though she found out that things were not as sensational as the email made them out to be, Ye Zi still determined that PX was a dangerous chemical product. And in the following period, she received similar messages about the PX project through MSN and QQ.

At this point, a close friend from high school gave her a phone call asking if she'd received an SMS about PX. This friend urged Ye Zi, saying: "Don't just stay at home with your husband and kid. Look at what's happening outside. Don't forget to put on a yellow band and go out for a walk on 1 June."

Put on a yellow band and go for a "walk"? This gave the timid Ye Zi a pause. But she thought about her son, only three years old, and her life in the future with her whole family breathing PX fumes, and decided to go out. "I hoped to express the true wishes of a citizen of Xiamen," Ye Zi said.

On Friday, 1 June, at 7 in the morning, Ye Zi found a piece of yellow cloth at home. She tore off a strip and put it in her bag, and then went out toward Xiamen Island. Coincidentally, on the ferry to Xiamen Island, she ran into her uncle's family. Talking to them, she found that their aims were identical.

From the city government to S. Hubin Road, Ye Zi and her uncle's family followed a procession of nearly 1000 people, and shouted slogans with them. "However, I kept that strip of yellow cloth in my bag and never dared to take it out," Ye Zi said. What disappointed her was that the good friend who had first urged her to "walk" never appeared for their meeting.

That night, Ye Zi found related news on the scrolling tickers of all of Xiamen's TV stations. But what she thought was just a gentle way of using a "walk" to express her wishes was defined by the Xiamen PSB as an "illegal mass demonstration" that "seriously disrupted public order and disturbed the lives and work of the general public."

This was not the first time that the Xiamen public expressed their will about the PX project.

Proposal

During this year's Two Congresses, 105 CPPCC members signed a joint "Proposal recommending moving the Xiamen Haicang PX project." This became the first key proposal of this year's CPPCC. Spearheading the proposal was CPPCC member Zhao Yufen, a CAS academician and a Xiamen University professor of chemistry who resides on Xiamen Island.

"If I say PX you may not understand, but you'll definitely remember the November, 2005, explosion at the Jilin benzene plant as if it were yesterday. PX is p-Xylene, a dangerous, highly carcinogenic chemical that causes a high rate of fetal deformations. And the PX project is located in the densely-populated Haicang District," Zhao Yufen said in an interview with China Business.

In the proposal, Zhao and her colleagues set out the safety consequences and pollution threat that the PX project might cause. On the site selection, for example, the proposal said that international practice for similar projects is to have them separated from cities by 70 kilometers; Chinese practice is usually 20 km, but the Haicang PX project is just 7 km from the main city districts.

After this proposal was reported in many papers like China Business, Southern Metropolis Daily, and China Youth Daily, there was an instant, fierce reaction in Xiamen. And more citizens wondered why such a major project connected to the public interest was not announced to the public beforehand.

According to media reports, on 26 March, all the homeowners in the "Future Waterfront" around 4 km removed from the PX project sent a letter to Zhao Yufen saying that the proposal revealed an unsettling inside story unknown to the majority of homeowners. Another letter signed by the villages of Wencuo, Dongyu, and Zhongshan in Haicang District expressed their pleasure at the willingness of the proposal to "offer advice."

Graffiti

On the evening of 8 May, a long-term resident of Xiamen originally from out of town returned to Xiamen from a business trip, passing by the construction site facing the Lujing Hotel east of Xiamen University. He discovered some English-language graffiti of tears, egrets (Xiamen's city bird), and the words "I LOVE XIAMEN," "Everyone is island," "Everyone is Xiamen," and "ANTIPX."

At first he thought that this was graffiti put up by foreigners who loved Xiamen, so he took photos of the graffiti and posted them to his blog. He never imagined that back in his company, a colleague would see the photos on his blog and immediately get a jubilant look in his eyes that said, "I've finally found an organization!" This colleague turned out to be a steadfast opponent of the PX project.

The designer of these pieces of graffiti was eventually confirmed. They were the work of Zhezi, moderately-well-known in Fujian, who had done a "Don't want to graduate" series of works on 6 May. On the night of 10 May, Zhezi posted to his blog: "About ANTIPX, I want to say that I am not an angry youth standing on principles, and I'm not a courageous person."

Zhezi said that this was just the action of a sensitive, cowardly individual searching for his own voice, not opposition or challenge to anything. "So I think that everyone should treasure this pand. To know that at this place and time there is someone else writing down the same thing that is in your mind: Xiamen, I love you," Zhezi wrote on his blog.

Even though Zhezi felt compelled to say, "Forgive me for my impotence in the face of reality. Facing PX, facing the pollution in this city, there's nothing but sorrow and wan description," and although there is now no longer any trace of the graffiti in many places lining the route of the walkers around Xiamen University, through the swift dissemination of the Internet, ANTIPX became the unanimous aspiration of the legions of Xiamen environmentalists.

SMS

On 29 May, the media reported that more than ten thousand Xiamen residents were circulating the same SMS message. But before long, the message was screened and it became hard to send or recieve it again.

The contents of the basically ran: "The Xianglu Group has invested in a (benzene) project in Haicang District. Should this highly-toxic chemical product be manufactured, it would be like dropping an atomic bomb on Xiamen Island; it would mean that in the future, the people of Xiamen would live in the shadow of leukemia and deformed children. We want to live. We want our health! International organizations have rules that these projects must be developed at least 100 km from cities; Xiamen is just 16 km away from this project! For our children and grandchildren....when you see this SMS please sent it to all of your friends in Xiamen!"

According to this reporter's understanding at the scene, there were not all that many city residents who received the SMS. "I did not personally receive that kind of SMS. I heard that some people around me got it. Everyone was passing it on. And I learned about today's action too," said Ms. Wen, who said she worked at a foreign trade company and who was out "parading" at noon on 1 June.

However, this did not seem to prevent "Have you received the SMS?" from becoming a greeting among Xiamen residents who met each other during that period. Mr. Chen, a man from Anhui who has been driving a taxi in Xiamen for five years, talked about PX with this reporter and had the solemn air of someone who knew inside information. "Just so happens that the past few days I've taken a number of people from Haicang District, and they've all been talking about this."

But at this time, the Xiamen municipal government had not revealed to citizens any further information regarding the PX project, so the "Boycott PX, Protect Xiamen" feeling circulated by SMS gradually covered Xiamen, whose summer sun was unobscured by rain or thunder.

Internet

Ms. Wang, who participated in the 1 June "walk," said that she first learned of the PX project about three months ago on Sina. "However, it seemed that before long the post was deleted," Wang said. In fact, for many local Xiamen residents, it was on the most popular local BBS - Xiaoyu Community - that they learned about the important base for PX.

On 30 May, this reporter tried to access the Xiaoyu BBS but found the message, "The community is temporarily closed for a program upgrade. 2007.05.29." According to one user of the Xiaoyu BBS, they had all received an email from the BBS whose general message instructed them not to post anything having to do with PX. On 5 June, this reporter again tried to access the BBS and found that it had returned to normal.

At the same time, during a period at the end of May, Xiamen's netizens used email, MSN, and QQ to receive information about PX.

Ye Zi received a message on QQ that went like this: "For our children and grandchildren, take action! Take part in a 10,000-person YX [游行, march]. At 8 am on 1 June, set off from your home for the municipal government. Tie a yellow band on your hand. If you have no time to participate, then send this information as widely as possible. For your own life, take action!"

On 2 June, the information sent through these channels went like this: "For two days, spontaneous parades have demonstrated our attitude. Production must continue, life must go on. There is no need to be impetuous and give unlawful elements eager for chaos an opportunity. Let us turn our eyes toward how the government handles the critical issue of the PX project."

"Anticipation for a green home never falters. Let us use soft, quite means to bring that forth. If you oppose the PX project, then tie yellow scarves everywhere - on your vehicle, on your work desk, on the bag you carry with you....at any place and at any time, ANTIPX, yellow scarves, so the city dances!"

"Walking," ANTIPX, yellow scarves...these became the symbols of the citizens' gentle expression of their opinions.

* * *

Following this was an article titled "Government PK Citizens: They're Both Winners" that began

It cannot be denied that when information was neither transparent nor balanced, the common people were thrown into a massive "PX panic," which carried with it elements of aimlessness and extremism. However, when this mass panic became an unstoppable flood of resistance and "persuasion," the local government had to be even more rational in its approach toward handling this public crisis.

as well as a final analysis by Zhao Lei that concluded

[China University of Political Science and Law professor] Cai Dingjian writes that one important platform in China's current transformation of public participation is the People's Congress within the country's political framework. In recent years, the Two Congresses, particularly the NPC meeting, have gained a high level of attention, demonstrating the extent of the public's thirst for participation. The People's Congresses needs to further improve their own representative mechanisms to better speak for the interests of the people; this is the main avenue of public participation.

However, in the deliberative procedure for the Xiamen PX project, the People's Congress was ignored. "From a legal standpoint, this at the very least did not fully respect the People's Congress system. The law stipulates that local People's Congresses have the right to decide upon major projects. With this size of an investment, profit, and effect on the populace, it is inappropriate for the decision to be made by the government," Cai told this publication.

China Newsweek is published by China News Service, the country's second largest news organization. Zhang Wen, editorial department head at Xinhua's Globe newsweekly, echoed this call for participatory government in a blog post on 8 June:

The Xiamen PX storm continues unabated, but the wind has changed direction, beginning to give the feeling of "settling up in Autumn." Seeking investment in Hong Kong, Xiamen's mayor was unbowed, saying that the PX project was just delayed, not stopped; if the officially-commissioned environmental assessment proved that there was nothing wrong with the project, then construction would continue.

Though I do not oppose the professional knowledge of the academicians and cannot perform a scientific analysis or proof of the danger posed by the PX project, searching on the Internet, I found that the dangers are roughly: PX is a commonly-used, flammable solvent. Long-term poisoning by PX can cause mental instability, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and changes to blood cells.

Yes, there's nothing here like the words "carcinogen" or "deformed" that spread wildly online, but aren't the above dangers enough? For a world-renowned tourist city to build a mammoth chemical plant is in and of itself an extremely misguided decision, particularly when there were not even any public hearings held before-hand, no solicitation of citizens' or experts' opinions on a decision that touches the personal welfare of all residents of Xiamen. This is obviously a violation of the spirit of "democratic, scientific administration" that the central government has been championing.

What's more perplexing is that after being repulsed by public will and after the pressures of public opinion forced the announcement that the PX project was delayed, the Xiamen mayor threatened punishment to "lawless elements," blaming them for harboring malicious intent and inciting the public to cause trouble.

On a major project that is connected with the public's life and wellness, he'd rather the public maintain silence, resigned to their fate. Should they take to the streets and express their objections, they there must be someone with "malicious aims" inciting them from the shadows. What absurd logic!

This logic is not only seen in Xiamen - look at lots of other places in China today. General Secretary Hu warned all levels of officials to "exercise right for the people, show concern for the people, and work to the benefit of the people," but for many local officials, this goes in one ear and out the other.

It's not hard to see that when scientific development and the construction of a harmonious society are advocated today, many local officials are still stuck in a mentality of the past. Their brains are frozen to their career achievements; the interest of the people do not easily enter their field of vision.

Lots more links can be found in this earlier Danwei post.

Links and Sources
There are currently 2 Comments for Official media on popular opinion in the Xiamen PX affair.

Comments on Official media on popular opinion in the Xiamen PX affair

Joel,

the author of "When a social crisis occurs" is He Weifang, not "He Wei"

Thanks, bingfeng. Don't know why I left that link in there, since I didn't end up running a translation of that article.

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