Planning failure in Xiamen

Southeast China residents who hoped to fend off the proposed PX plant in Xiamen will be disappointed, writes Liu Jianqiang. A long-awaited review merely exposes the weakness of environmental law in China.

Residents of the southeast China city of Xiamen (also known as Amoy) had been waiting six months for a review that they thought would decide the fate of the city’s controversial plans for a petrochemical plant manufacturing paraxylene (PX). They hoped it would mean their families could continue to live in the idyllic coastal city without a toxic chemical plant moving in next door.

The report was published on December 5, and concluded that space was limited in Haicang, the southern district of Xiamen where the plant was slated to be built. The city government should decide, it said, whether to develop the area as a petrochemical industrial zone or as a secondary city centre. The implication was that the industrial zone should not border a residential area. The city should either relocate the chemical plant, or relocate the residents.

The report was reassuring, but the locals do not feel safe. The key was not what the report said, but how it was used – and it turned out their initial hopes may have been misplaced. The report may not actually help the decision-making process, despite the wishes of the residents and environmental officials.

Evacuation risks

Work on the Xiamen PX project started in November 2006. In 2008, the plant was expected to start producing 800,000 tonnes of PX every year, an amount that could fetch 80 billion yuan (US$10.8 billion).

In March 2007, 105 members of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference called for the plant to be relocated, warning that PX is a hazardous chemical and carcinogen that can cause fetal abnormalities. The risks mean such plants should be located at least 100 kilometres from any city, they said.

However, the Xiamen PX project was proposed to be built only four kilometres from a middle school and a dormitory that is home to 5,000 students. Over 100,000 people live within five kilometres of the plant, in some cases as little as one-and-a-half kilometres away. Scientists say that a serious accident at the plant, or a natural disaster such as a typhoon, earthquake or tsunami, could cause a major chemical leak that would force the evacuation of Xiamen Island over only two bridges, resulting in a massive human disaster.

In May, thousands of locals took to the streets to protest. This led the city government to halt construction on the plant. However, the authorities did not offer any further response.

Veiled terms

The turnaround came on June 7, when Pan Yue, the outspoken deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), told reporters that a planning review of the entire Xiamen area would be carried out. The location of the proposed PX plant, said Pan, had been zoned for the petrochemical industry, despite it also being zoned as a residential area at the same time. The project’s potential proximity to residents made it a high-risk project, he said.

The Xiamen authorities should take this review into account, Pan added, saying they should make sure residents were not in any proximity to the chemical plant. In response, a city government spokesperson said that any decision on the PX project would take this planning assessment into account.

In July, the city government chose the China Research Academy of Environmental Sciences (CRAES) to carry out the review. However, according to an insider source who did not want to be named, the city government put pressure on CRAES to produce a report favourable to resumption of the project, citing “cross-Straits relations”. In the end, CRAES produced an objective and neutral report, but changes were made to its wording. Although it states that the plans are unreasonable, it does so in veiled terms.

This may explain why the media misreported its conclusions. In an article published on December 5, Caijing magazine cited the report as saying the level of risk at the Xiamen plant was “acceptable.” It quoted the report as saying: “judging the project on an individual basis, its environmental risks are at an acceptable level.”

However, anyone familiar with the system governing planning reviews will understand that “judging the project on an individual basis” does not take into account the overall development plans for the area. Such an approach only accounts for a project’s ability to meet certain environmental standards, without reflecting the pressures on the local environment or the area’s local development goals. In other words, if the PX plant were to be built on wasteland in northwest China it would be a beneficial, high-tech project. In Xiamen, it could be a disaster. Nobody is calling for the project to be stopped, just for it to be relocated.

Planning reviews

In actual fact the planning review was insignificant. What are important are the wishes of Xiamen’s people, and the report does not reflect them. The review is mere ornamentation, since it was submitted to the local government and planning authorities for approval, not to the environmental authorities.

China’s Environmental Impact Assessment Law of 2003 does not cover planning reviews. If a planning review is required for a project’s approval, this is carried out by the planning authorities, not the environmental authorities, and there are no legal regulations governing the enforcement of this review process. Xiamen did not actually need to carry out the review, and even when it did, the city did not have to take it into consideration. The fact that this decision remained in the hands of the city authorities is why Xiamen could go ahead and zone Haicang as both a petrochemical industrial zone and a residential zone at the same time.

In other words, whether the planning review was heeded or not was entirely up to the authorities. Although a spokesperson for the Xiamen city government said the final decision on the PX project would depend on the conclusions of the report, there was no legal requirement for them to take it into account.

Strictly speaking, SEPA was acting beyond the law to ask the city government to conduct a planning review. They were merely reflecting popular sentiment without any legal basis.

All signs point to the local government and the project’s investors resuming construction on the project – and to continued fierce resistance from local residents. Whether the project goes ahead or not will ultimately depend on that particular balance of power, not the review, even if it is used to justify one decision or another. The report has no legal foundation and only has a surface value. It is only a symbol of success, and will belong to whoever wins.


Liu Jianqiang is a reporter from Beijing, currently a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley.

Homepage photo by shgbird