The PX Environmental Controversy: Erosion of Public Trust in China?
July 2, 2015 by Blog Editor
Last week, a mass protest against proposals for a paraxylene (PX) plant took place in Jinshan, a suburb of Shanghai. Thousands of people marched on the streets with banners bearing slogans such as ‘Kick PX Project Out of Jinshan’, ‘I Love Jinshan, I Refuse Pollution’ and ‘Boycott PX Project – Protect Citizens’ Health, Preserve Jinshan’s Environment’.
Public opposition snowballed after the government’s decision to invite the public to review an expansion plan for a chemical industrial zone, which allegedly includes proposals to construct a paraxylene plant.
The day after the demonstration started, local government of Jinshan district released an open letter to the public stating that “there is no provision for a PX plant in the environmental assessment for the [Jinshan] chemical industrial park. Neither will there be a PX project in the future.”
However, such a statement seemed to fail to regain the trust of the public. The demonstration lasted over a week and as situations escalated, more protests were taken in front of the municipal government building in Shanghai city.
China’s PX controversy
Paraxylene, usually referred to as PX, is a flammable chemical that most commonly used in polyester and plastics manufacturing. The frequency of anti-PX mass protests has surged in recent years. As early as 2007, thousands of citizens in Xiamen, Fujia, took to the streets protest against proposals to build a PX plant in the city and the plan was abolished eventually after the idea was rejected by scholars, representatives of citizens, delegates from the National People’s Congress and CPPCC members during public reviewing sessions. The word PX has been associated with the words ‘dangerous’, ‘toxic’, ‘pollution’ and ‘cancer’ ever since.
In following years, PX-related protests successively happened in Dalian in Liaoning Province, Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, Kunming in Yunnan Province and Jiujiang in Jiangxi Province. A recent example can be traced back in April 2014 when some citizens gathered in front of the government building in Maoming, a city in Guangdong, to express discontent about a proposal to build PX plant in the city. The Maoming government had to issue an official statement exhorting the citizens to learn more scientific knowledge about PX and “not to create, believe or disseminate rumors”.
Breakdown of public trust
The frequency of mass environmental protests in China these years highlights the breakdown of public trust and information non-transparency between the public and local governance. While local governemnts have made effort to solicit public feedback about improvement of public services and plans for new industrial developments, the chronic problems of corruption, low transparency of governance and limited public scrutiny has eroded the basis for effective consultation. With no clear evidence signaling that increased exposure to PX and PX-related chemicals causes cancer, the Chinese public seem to find every reason to believe so – just like how they doubted the official number of reported deaths during the 2011 high-speed train collision in Wenzhou and the authenticity of a CCTV recording after an unarmed man Xu Chunhe was shot dead by a police officer in Qing’an train station in northern China earlier this year.
In contrast to China’s public apathy towards political dissidents and issues of human rights, environmental problems provoke a different level of anxiety among citizens of China. When making decisions about new development plans, local governments and investors remain preoccupied with political achievement and economic growth. To ordinary Chinese, however, a healthier living environment is what a good economy should have granted them and what they need to earn for their offspring.
As the increasing usage of Internet and social media continue to expand the space for public discussion in China, the current growth-oriented government strategies might need a structural change to better respond to societal demands for more accountable public policies and a better standard of living.
Images: Sina Weibo