Riot police clashed with activists protesting the expansion of a chemical plant in Ningbo, China. Residents decried the environmental consequences of the plant, expressing fears over the possible leak of a potentially lethal chemical.
Thousands of activists flooded the center of the eastern Chinese city on Saturday, scuffling with police during the protest. Demonstrators carried banners protesting the presence of the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation in the district of Zhenhai. The company – also known as Sinopec – is China’s largest state oil company.
"PX…Get out of Ningbo!" read one placard, referring to the toxic chemical paraxylene (PX), which the company produces 500,000 tons of per year. PX is carcinogenic, and can harm the central nervous system, liver and kidneys if inhaled. The chemical can also be absorbed through the skin, and prolonged exposure can lead to death.
Local police reported that a number of demonstrators caused a disturbance in central Ningbo and that some overturned a police car and pelted officers with rocks on Friday. Activists claimed that thousands of protesters initially participated in a peaceful march, which turned violent after police began to fire tear gas into the crowds.
The rally’s organizers are now calling for a larger protest to be held at Tianyi Square, also located in the center of Ningbo. However, discussions of the demonstration and the uploading of photos about the protest have been blocked on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
Chinese authorities maintain that they have adhered to "the most stringent discharge standards,” and resolved to increase the plant's annual oil-refining capacity to 15 million tons.
Chinese state newspaper Xinhua said the local government pledged to rehouse villagers who will be affected by the expansion of the plant, and threatened to punish “people who were involved in instigating, making up rumors and organizing illegal activities."
China’s aggressive industrial development over the last few years has attracted attention to the environmental consequences of such rapid growth, sparking numerous protests.
Three factories belonging to Sinopec were closed last month in the province of Guandun after environmental concerns were raised following an investigation by local authorities. They found that contaminated water from the chemical plants was leaking into the municipal water system.
Similar rallies against the use of the toxic chemical paraxylene were held in the northwestern city of Dalian, prompting the closure and relocation of a chemical plant last year. Reports of rallies in the cities of Chengdu, Nanjing and Qingdao have also come to light.
The mass protests come two weeks before Beijing hands over power to the new government that will rule China for the next decade. Concerns have been raised as to how this administration will deal with social unrest and environmental issues.