The hot topic in Kunming these days is plans for the construction of a new petrochemicals plant just west of town and the (illegal) public demonstrations that are challenging the construction of that plant. The plant has been in the works for about five years, but became well known to the residents of Kunming after a small protest against the plant May 4. Even though the protest happened less than a mile from our house, we didn't know about it until afterwards. I started asking my Chinese acquaintances about the protests and it set off hours of discussion each time. So far, anyone I've asked here has been passionately against the construction of the plant. But then again, the only people I talk to are the highly educated, politically conscious elite who can speak English. What does the guy who sells us vegetables in the market think about construction of the plant so near to Kunming? I have no idea, my Chinese isn't nearly that good and that would be a somewhat awkward question to ask.
Demonstrators held a second protest last week, May 16, and about 2000 people showed up - only "several hundred" according to Chinese press. Despite many warnings to stay away and expectations of violence, the May 16 protests went off relatively peacefully. There was a large police presence and several people were arrested during the rally, but otherwise, it was pretty peaceful. This doesn't mean that the government was tolerating it, though. Faculty at the two major universities in town all received emails from University administration warning them that they could lose their jobs if they were known to be taking part in the demonstration and students were threatened with expulsion if they were caught attending. I'm sure similar emails were sent out to any other employees who worked for the government, as well as other major employers in town who operate with the blessing of the government - such as the Yunnan Tobacco Company, hospitals and banks. Our school planned an excursion that day for all of the foreign students. They took us all (for free) safely about an hour outside of town to see some caves. I can't confirm that they planned this excursion to get a few bus loads of foreigners out of town to make sure they missed the protests, but the timing is uncanny. We went to the caves. Even though many attended, it's a bad idea for a foreigner to show up to one of these protests. Visas can mysteriously expire early, the police can come visit and generally unpleasant things can happen.
The issue with the petrochemical plant is the concern that it will pollute Kunming's air and water. This similar grievance has already been the cause of thousands of other protests around China. I'm sure at least once a week you could find an environmental protest happening in China that gets reported in the international press. The international press loves covering it because it reinforces China's image as being the big bad polluter. In other words, it's a nice, easy story to cover because it already has a nice narrative; the story basically writes itself.
Kunming has an especially strong case because, being so far inland and unattractive to major manufacturers, it doesn't see so much industrial activity. The price of getting things to market (i.e. ports along the Pacific) is just too expensive. Kunming's best known export, actually, is flowers, which can grow nearly year-round, thanks to Kunming's sunny climate: It's known as the "Spring City". Since flowers have to be flown to market to preserve freshness, Kunming's flower producers aren't punished financially for being far away from the ports. Imagine Kunming, as pristine of a big city as you can find in China due to its lack of industy, the provider of flowers the world over, facing the prospects of a petrochemical plant. If you live on the heavily export focused east coast of China, a petrochemical plant next door is just the way of life. People in Kunming have a lower tolerance.
The big fear is that the plant will produce annually 500,000 tons Paraxylene (PX), a nasty, carcinogenic petrochemical used in the production of polyester and other synthetic fabrics. The local government denied that the plant would produce PX, but opposers say that's a parsing of words: the government is either lying, or the plant will produce another chemical, similarly nasty to PX but with a different name.
Why build this plant in Kunming? In China's flower capital? Well, it gets back to a blogpost that I wrote back in March about Yunnan province's strategic position vis-a-vis southeast Asia. While Yunnan is a thousand miles away from the highly profitable Pacific ports along China's east coast, it geographically serves as China's land bridge to southeast Asia. Myanmar, in our case, is selling China crude oil through a pipeline to Yunnan province. In order to capitalize on this access to hydrocarbons and attempt to diversify China's access to energy (as well as Kunming's economy) producers decided to build the petrochemical plant here. The important thing to remember is that this isn't just some local economic stimulus plan - this is an advancement in the economic relations between China and Myanmar. The more successfully China can exploit Myanmar's raw commodities, the more China can hold Myanmar in its orbit and the easier it will be for China to influence Myanmar in the future. This is especially crucial now since western countries are dropping sanctions against Myanmar and trying to open up commercial relations with the country. Myanmar's strategic importance to China (it offers, perhaps, China's most accessible land route to the Indian ocean) means that China needs to keep it on good terms. In other words, China needs to maintain vigilance over its back door. China doesn't necessarily welcome western adventures into Myanmar, as they provide competition to China. China has the advantage in Myanmar now, but will need to work hard to maintain it.
The petro-chemical plant, then, does have some strategic significance. For that reason, it will be hard for the government to back down to protester demands. Sure, the plant site may be slightly relocated, but China is eager to get the plant producing in order to strengthen business relations with Myanmar. Delays would be a big nuisance.
As for the protesters, the target and timing of their demonstrations shows intelligent design. There are a million environmental hazards in Kunming - one needs only venture a few miles south to Dian Lake to find a heavily polluted body of water that serves as the region's drinking water supply. But if you're protesting against water pollution in China, take a number and get in line. That's nothing new. Protesting a strategic petrochemical plant is a higher stakes game that will get more attention. Beijing has already reportedly put some pressure on the provincial and local governments in Kunming to fix the problem of opposition to the plant's construction. The timing is also really good for the protesters. Kunming will host the high profile China-South Asia Expo June 6-10, which will draw international attention to Kunming for a week. Rumor has it that Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend. And if not the president himself, then surely some high level government officials from Beijing. Sure enough, the next planned protest is June 6. The planners of the protest appear to have been leading up to June 6, when they will have the biggest stage a city like Kunming can hope to have. The Communist Party certainly does not want the protesters to hijack the expo and corrupt the established message of positive Chinese economic relations with south Asia into a message of Chinese environmental evils.
One option for the authorities is to just block the protests and start arresting people. I think one of the reasons that the authorities let the first two protests happen was to give them a chance to get to know all those protesters involved. They could take pictures, identify leaders and basically just get a good idea of the composition of the protest. Then, on June 4th or 5th, they can go make some visits to some key people and quietly put pressure on the participants to not turn out in large numbers. It's much more tasteful to quietly detain and preempt a protest than cause a big scene in front of the international media by beating protesters with batons and firing tear gas on them.
It will certainly be interesting to see what happens June 6. We'll be out of town, in Beijing, so we won't see the action first hand, but I'm ok with that. I'm not here to make a judgement on China's policies. I remember in college, there was a big stink one year over the fact that a science lab on campus was carrying out military research on chemical weapons. The university administration denied the danger of the program, discouraged people from protesting (although they certainly didn't threaten expulsion or termination) and generally tried to keep things going on as usual. However, the city of Boston, much less the state of Massachusetts, did not get involved in the issue. The big difference I see here is the ability for the government to exert its influence through all sorts of institutions. Yunnan University, for example, is half controlled by the Communist Party. It's one thing to appeal to people not to protest, it's another to threaten their livelihood if they do. I'm not here to say whether that's good or bad, just that I'm impressed with China's ability to exert central control. I think that's the major lesson I've learned throughout this string of protests.