China’s toxic leaks and social unrest

August 15, 2011

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

What does PX mean? That’s the keyword for China from the past 24 hours.

State media reported that residents of Dalian were recently forced to flee when a storm battering the northeast Chinese coast, whipping up waves that burst through a dyke protecting a local chemical plant. The plant produces paraxylene (PX), a toxic petrochemical used in polyester.

On Sunday, some angry residents finally decided that instead of being forced to flee, the chemical plant should be relocated.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate and Dalian, known as one of the most beautiful coastal cities in China, made headlines all over the world.

Dalian is not alone.

Blame bad luck or natural disasters, perhaps. Four days ago, an accident at a factory in Shandong province resulted in a deadly chemical gas leak and 125 people, mostly workers and nearby residents, were sent to the hospital, local media reported. About three months ago, poisonous chemical waste was dumped illegally, polluting water sources in Yunnan province. The case was only recently revealed to the public. You can imagine how angry local people must feel.

I had a chat with a young and well-educated fund manager, a typical middle-class Chinese, about those recent accidents and his views surprised me. The fund manager is usually very calm and polite before colleagues and clients. He told me he would take to the streets and even fight to the death to get the PX plant relocated if he were a resident in the area.

“It’s for the next generation, our children … The government must be aware that children are the last hope for many Chinese parents. They will do anything against the government if they think their children cannot have a happy, healthy life,” he said.

Environmental pollution has been one of the major causes of social unrest in China, which had almost 90,000 such “mass incidents” of riots, protests, mass petitions and other acts of unrest in 2009, according to a 2011 study by two scholars from Nankai University in north China. Some estimates go even higher.

About a decade ago, I still remember clearly, one of my professors told me that in China even if you don’t want anything to do with politics, at some point politics will find you and drag you into it. Global investors when rushing into China for buying opportunities must also bear in mind the political risks and fast-changing social environment.

The PX case in Dalian, the gas leak in Shandong and the contaminated water in Yunnan all prove the same thing — you can barely live without being touched by politics in China.

George Chen is a Reuters editor and columnist based in Hong Kong.

Photo: Residents hold a banner with Chinese characters forming a shape of a skull which reads ”Get out PX (paraxylene), give us back our home, never give up” as they demonstrate against a petrochemical plant at the People’s Square in Dalian, Liaoning province August 14, 2011 Reuters/Stringer


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Global investors when rushing into China for buying “…opportunities must also bear in mind the political risks and fast-changing social environment.”

Years ago, I naively thought: do trade with China, and it will gradually open up, increase mutual trust.
When we find (a) sham companies being put on the Market (b) Party members on the Boards of Directors (c) frank tax evasion (d) cash transactions all round (e) money disappearing, you are left wondering about the bits you cannot see.

Couple that with the sort of thing you describe, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to be investing there.

Posted by eachtohisown | Report as abusive

How come you never have anything good to say about your own country George?

Sure, it’s not perfect and has many flaws just like any other country but it’s the place that raised you. Instead of always complaining about how bad it is, why don’t you do something to make it then.

Posted by wenwen333 | Report as abusive

‘eachtohisown’ you wouldn’t advice anyone to invest in China? Maybe you should put all your money in America then which just lost its AAA rating with over 13 trillion dollars of debt and survives on printing money.

Posted by wenwen333 | Report as abusive

Back in the day US suppliers were told that to maintain their business with US customers they must meet the “China price”. Most couldn’t and their customers began sourcing out of China.

The Chinese people have been paying the “China price” for years.

Soon those sourcing from China will be paying their “China price”.

Hopefully one day the ruling elites will pay the price for despoiling China.

Posted by VodKnockers | Report as abusive

In the town I live in (Mianyang, Sichuan) we recently had a manganese slug pool spill into the water supply. 2 million people were left cooking with only bottled water. The mine did not report the incident and it was only later discovered and reported by the local city water authority. Considering how many fake water scares that water distributors had created over the years, nobody took it seriously. Until the city government started blocking out CCTV, Xinhua and the China daily. We could not even read the Peoples liberation Army News in Chinese. It was shocking! My girlfriends mother told us not to drink or use any city water to cook for at least 2 months. They are using rain water to wash dishes!

Posted by thelaowai | Report as abusive