On July 28, thousands of citizens of Qidong, just north of Shanghai, gathered in a square to express their opposition to the construction of a controversial pipeline for a paper mill that residents said would each day dump 150,000 tons of industrial waste into the sea near the city of one million people. Xinhua reported that the people had been expressing concerns for years about damage to the waters around Qidong—fears that fell on the deaf ears of party officials used to ignoring the needs of citizens.
The pipeline was to be a major part of the Oji Paper Co., a Sino-Japanese paper project in Nantong City, which administers Qidong. Rather than dump the wastewater from the paper factory into the nearby Yangtze River, it was decided to build a 110 km pipeline to eject it into the Yellow Sea, near the port of Lusi, which is at the edge of Qidong. Officials justified the decision on the grounds that the sea can more easily handle waste water. Lusi is a major fishing port and adjacent to important fishing grounds.
The protest was the latest in a string of conflicts between local governments and citizens linked to controversial projects with the potential to cause environmental damage. And it came just weeks after residents in the ancient town of Shifang, in Sichuan Province, forced the local government to back down on the construction of a molybdenum copper plant.
Middle school students, members of the so-called post-90s generation, also played a role in the protest, possibly inspired by their peers in Shifang, who ran the social media campaign that mobilized protesters. According to news reports, thousands of middle school students in Qidong used QQ and other social media to urge citizens to gather at the Yongan Plaza that day to protest the pipeline. Qidong teachers were called back early from the summer holiday to keep the students away from the protests. They asked students and their parents to sign a guarantee saying they would not participate in “illegal gatherings.” The students insisted on marching.
The Japanese owners said the project, estimated to cost $1.95 billion, was the group’s biggest overseas investment, and that it strictly followed national standards. "Our factory has a very strict water quality management system based on national standards," the company said in a statement posted on its Chinese-language web site. "We only release sewage after it is purified in house to meet such standards."
Local residents wondered aloud, however, why if the waste water was so safe it wasn’t being discharged in the Yangzi River, instead of piping it 110km away.
Although the executive vice mayor of Qidong announced on July 26 that the project would be suspended, this did not mollify local citizens. Two days later, on July 28, some 5,000 protesters gathered in the center of the city at 6:00 a.m. chanting “Protect the environment.” Within minutes conflicts began to break out with the police and the crowd headed to the city government, about 1km away.
There, things took a turn for the worse when 2,000 citizens forced their way past police and into the city government compound, where they turned over government cars, ransacked government offices, and threw computers out the window. Protesters became enraged when they discovered official stashes of name-brand cigarettes, alcohol, luxury goods and even condoms—all symbols of China’s corrupt bureaucracy. They tossed this all out on the ground below, where other protesters took photos and posted them on the Internet. Sun Jianhua, Party secretary of Qidong, was surrounded by protesters, who humiliated him by ripping off his shirt and tried to force him to wear a t-shirt bearing anti-pollution slogans. He resisted and was later escorted away from the scene by police. By this time, the number of protesters had swollen to 10,000. Photos, video, and comments on the incident were soon flying through cyberspace and people around China were watching the event unfold with interest.
The local government decided it was time to surrender. At 11:00 a.m., Zhang Guohua, the mayor of Nantong City, went on TV to announce that the project would not go ahead.
In the afternoon, all photographs, video and comments related to the protest were wiped clean from the Sina Weibo microblogging site. But it was already too late—local citizens had already scored another victory for people power.
Paul Mooney (慕亦仁) is an American freelance journalist and has reported on China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong since 1985. At various times, he has been on staff at Newsweek, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and the South China Morning Post. He has lived in Beijing since 1994.