Residents in Maoming protest against PX production

Chinese state media blames local governments for failing to build trust in chemical projects

The local government in Maoming city, in Guangdong province, South China, has said it will not pursue the controversial paraxylene (PX) project “if a majority of residents object”.

However, an editorial published in the state-run Global Times said that since the victory of Xiamen’s anti-PX campaign in 2007, the public’s opposition to major chemical projects has become “irrational”. The editorial also suggested that the local government in Maoming should not trade the PX project for short-term stability.

See also: Time to change the script on China’s PX protests

See also: Boosting the role of the public in environment protection (policy report coordinated by chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton)

“We don’t believe all planned PX projects in China in recent years are unreasonable, ridden with environmental dangers. Therefore, a strong local government is needed so that it can withstand pressure, be capable and patient in negotiating with the public,” the editorial read, adding “can Maoming act this way? We hope so.”

Hundreds of Maoming residents reportedly protested on Sunday against the production of PX, a chemical widely used in fabric and plastic bottle manufacturing. The event is the latest episode of a series of anti-PX protests since 2007.

Lin Boqiang, an energy economist from Xiamen University, echoed Global Times’ suggestion. Lin said that the government should not yield to public pressure over PX projects. Instead, it should actively involve the public in the preliminary environmental review process and make sure the process is transparent and up to standard.

“China needs to produce paraxylene. The government should have a strict environmental bottom-line and decide whether the project should go or stay base on that bottom-line,” Lin told chinadialogue. According to Xinhua, China currently imports 53% of its PX, and the supply gap was estimated to be 9.5 million tonnes.

“What the government really should do is to clearly and transparently explain to the local residents in the review process the pros and cons of the paraxylene project, the comparison of ours and international environmental standards and how it would monitor and punish polluting activities in the future,” Lin said, adding that to halt the project whenever it meets opposition is not a workable solution.

According to Lin, the local governments’ handling of Xiamen and Dalian’s anti-PX campaign has set a very bad example. “The public does not know what level of pollution the project would cause and how acceptable the pollution level would be. They see Xiamen and Dalian rejecting PX projects and assume that other cities should not have them either. To halt the project whenever opposition emerges only causes more distrust.”

However, Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based NGO, told chinadialogue that “the ice of three feet does not result from just one day of cold weather.”

“It’s not the first time that local residents have stood up against PX projects. The authorities should really rethink their environment-related policy making process,” Ma said. According to him, the approval process for major projects has long excluded the public and hence caused distrust.

China Daily
, China’s official English newspaper, also acknowledged the lack of trust issue. In an editorial, it said the lack of transparency in the process of introducing major industrial projects has helped cement the perception that local governments and their leaders would place economic growth before environmental concerns. Therefore, “for a local government, it is not a matter of just dissuading local residents from opposing the project, it is a matter of establishing their own trustworthiness among local residents.”

But in Maoming’s case, the task of rebuilding trustworthiness may prove to be even harder as corruption has plagued the city. In 2013, more than 70 anti-graft investigators were sent to Maoming to probe into the allegations of widespread graft in the city government. The South China Morning Post noticed that the anti-PX protest coincided in time with the opening of a corruption investigation of a former senior municipal official.

Although there is no proven connection between the proposed project and the city’s notorious corruption issue, confidence in the project suffered. Han Zhipeng, a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Guangzhou Committee, told the Global Times that Maoming is no longer suitable for a PX project, citing the city’s notorious management on pollution control of local enterprise and long-existing corruption issues as the reasons.