BEIJING — After a weekend of protests, Chinese authorities have capitulated to thousands of well-organized, middle-class demonstrators and canceled plans for the expansion of a petrochemical plant in a small coastal city near Shanghai.
Sinopec, the state oil monopoly, had been planning an $8-billion expansion of an industrial complex already suspected of raising cancer rates in Zhenhai.
"With living standards going up, people want not only fresh air and clean water, they want a stronger voice about what’s happening around them," said Timothy Tang, a 29-year-old working in finance who was involved in the protests in Ningbo, a larger city that administers Zhenhai.
Protest organizers said they had been encouraged by a similar uprising last year in Dalian, where middle-class protesters managed to stop a plant that was also supposed to produce paraxylene, a toxic petrochemical used in the manufacturing of plastic bottles and polyester.
“This chemical became notorious after the Dalian protests and we thought we needed to take action as well," said Tang. “The local government made concessions after only two days of protests so they must have faced strong pressure from Beijing to wrap things up fast."
The Communist Party opens a week-long congress Nov. 8 in Beijing to announce China's new leadership lineup and the country is under a security lockdown throughout.
Ningbo’s party secretary, Wang Huizuo, said in a statement posted Monday on the local government website, “All government departments and local residents need to maintain social stability and create a great environment for the grand opening of the 18th Party Congress."
The official Ningbo Daily on Monday hailed the decision by the local government late Sunday as reflecting the “people’s will.”
At the height of the demonstrations on Saturday, up to 5,000 people converged on local government offices. Although at one point they threw bottles and other objects at police, the protesters were more orderly than most, reflecting the large number of middle-class homeowners and women in the crowds.
"People in the crowd got very emotional and took some unnecessary actions," said Yu Xiaoming, who participated in negotiations with local government. "But we’re satisfied now that the issue is resolved."
Along with land confiscations, environmental concerns have been a major trigger for violent protest in China. Earlier this month, homeowners — with similar not-in-my-backyard views — poured into the streets in a small town in Hainan to protest a coal-fired power plant.
"China is growing very fast and local government don’t bother to consult public opinion before they build factories," said Zhao Zhangyuan, a professor of environmental science based in Beijing. "But that will have to change.
— Barbara Demick. Tommy Yang contributed to this story.
Photo: Chinese residents gather outside the city government offices in Ningbo, China on Monday after thousands of locals clashed with police over the weekend during a protest over the expansion of a petrochemical plant. Credit: Peter Parks / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.