CHINA

Chinese police muzzle protests in 'cancer village'

There was a heavy police presence during the first day of protests in Jinshan. (All photo posted on Weibo by protesters.)
There was a heavy police presence during the first day of protests in Jinshan. (All photo posted on Weibo by protesters.)

For the first time in a week, the residents of Jinshan have stopped coming out to protest. Since June 22, people living in this industrial district to the south of Shanghai have been demonstrating against a plan to move a petrochemical plant into the neighbourhood. But last Saturday, authorities decided to rein in the movement when Jinshan's residents tried to protest in the centre of Shanghai.

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For the first time in a week, the residents of Jinshan have stopped coming out to protest. Since June 22, people living in this industrial district to the south of Shanghai have been demonstrating against a plan to move a petrochemical plant into the neighbourhood. But last Saturday, authorities decided to rein in the movement when Jinshan's residents tried to protest in the centre of Shanghai.

Tens of millions of protesters came took to the streets of Jinshan, according to protest organisers. (Photo from the Weibo account of a protester.)

According to figures released by the protest's organisers, last week's demonstration through the streets of Jinshan attracted tens of thousands of protesters. They donned anti-pollution masks to speak out against the health and environmental risks posed by the factory. Some wore headbands bearing the following inscription: "Yes to the political line followed by Xi Jinping and the party, but no to the installation of a factory in Jinshan and no to cancer."

"Yes to the political line followed by Xi Jinping and the party, but no to the installation of a factory in Jinshan and no to cancer." (Photo from the Weibo account of a protester.)

The petrochemical plant 'SINOPEC' was built in the 1990s in Gaoqiao in Shanghai's Pudong industrial zone. But in the last few years, several fires have broken out, calling into question the reliability and safety of factory equipment and also spreading fear amongst local residents. Last May, after yet another fire roared through the factory and injured seven people, the complex was finally shut down. It was the fourth fire in barely three years.

Chinese authorities have always officially denied that the plant would be relocated to Jinshan. Yet journalists have nevertheless succeeded in getting confirmation from an anonymous government source about the relocation of the plant. On top of that, residents claim that a plot of land is already being prepared for the construction of the factory.

Police cars can be seen in a central square in Shanghai. (Photo from the Weibo account of a protester.)

Between the 22 and 27 of June, several protests were organisedbut they were closely supervised by security forces. On Saturday, protest organisers tried to arrange a sit-in at Shanghai's People's Square, right in the heart of the teeming city.

The idea was to "attract the attention of the media and get a response from the government," one of the movement's organisers told FRANCE 24 on conditions of anonymity. "But we completely failed. The police stopped all the buses coming from Jinshan and verified our ID cards. The park at the People's Square was closed to the public and those who succeeded in gathering in the square were taken away in police cars back to Jinshan. Those who resisted the most were 're-educated' for several hours and were only released once they had signed a letter promising to never again participate in this kind of gathering."

Photo posted on Weibo showing the letter that protesters were forced to sign. Translation: 1. To admit the error committed in participating in this demonstration. 2. Promise to no longer participate in the evaluation of the environmental consequences of the building of a factory. 3. Promise to never again participate in a protest against a decision made by the government. Name, ID number, address. Phone number. Date and signature.

The factory uses paraxylene, a highly flammable hydrocarbon used notably to make plastic bottles and polyester products. It's this very hydrocarbon that's the root cause of several incidents known to have taken place in Chinese factories. Although the director of SINOPEC asserts that paraxylene "doesn't pose any more of a health risk than coffee", exposure to the material can lead to irritation, headaches and insomnia. As of yet, no studies have proved whether or not the product can lead to cancer. But in a region where illnesses linked to Chinese factories are fairly common, fear is widespread.

Photo from the Weibo account of a protester.

"The industrial zone doesn't stop getting bigger"

M. Y is a shopkeeper in Zengfeng, a village in the district of Jinshan. He took part in several protests last week.

Cancer is so widespread in my village that everyone has at least three loved ones that have been struck by cancer. My 66-year-old mother has lung cancer. My 57-year-old uncle, who worked in a petrochemical factory, has blood cancer. And my sister-in-law, who's 33 years old, has breast cancer. From 2006 to 2009, in barely three years, there were around 30 deaths from cancer out of 3,400 residents in the village. That's without precedent [Editor's note: The figure was published in a study carried out by a University Hospital in Beijing.That's more than twice the national average, according to Xinhua]. Last year, our village was listed as being one of 'hundreds of cancer villages' by the press, but I'm not even surprised. That's what it's like for every family here.

A suburb fallen victim to Chinese industrial development

Since the 1970s, Jinshan has always been an industrial zone. At the time, villages in the area welcomed the factories that the large cities no longer wanted because we were very poor. At the start, it did help us economically. But afterwards, we began to realise what the environmental consequences were. In the year 2000, the factories banded together to create a petrochemical zone on the coast. Then in 2006, the zone expanded from 40km2 in size to 60km2. In 2003, they even started using the beach as "an open-air industrial waste landfill". People live barely 500 metres away and the smell is unbearable.

Like loads of other suburbs of big cities, Jinshan has fallen victim to China's industrial development. I was born here and I grew up here. It's really sad to see what's happening. The bosses of these factories work with the state, so they'll always find a place to set up shop. The protests of these last few years haven’t stopped the industrial zone from getting bigger. If this continues, I'll do everything I can to get as far away as possible, or at least to send my children elsewhere.

Since 2007, protests against petrochemical factories that use paraxylene have been held in cities across China. In Dalian and Xiamen, local authorities notably found themselves on the side of public opinion when they decided to shelf plans to set up plants following large-scale demonstrations.

Article written with FRANCE 24 journalist Weiyu Tsien(@WeiyuQ)