Hundreds of residents of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou took to the streets on Monday to protest plans to build a trash incinerator in their neighborhood. In front of the municipal headquarters for one of China's largest cities, it was an unusually prominent place for a civic demonstration. And rarely has a local Chinese demonstration been so conspicuous online, where activists posted photos and comments about events as they unfolded. Those messages were then relayed to a broader audience on social networking sites like Twitter, despite its block by China's web censors. While the demonstration was local in nature, the Guangzhou protesters' ability to spread their message so broadly will likely unnerve a government that fears organized dissent.
The protesters gathered Monday morning to voice their anger over plans to build an incinerator to deal with the rising amounts of trash produced by Guangzhou's Panyu district, whose 2.5 million residents are expected to generate 2,200 tons of garbage a day by next year, a local official told the state-run China Daily newspaper. A site for an incinerator to replace two overtaxed landfills was proposed in 2006, but residents say they weren't informed about the plans until this fall. In one survey cited by China Daily, 92% of residents thought the incinerator would harm their health, and 97% were opposed to its construction.
Around 8 a.m. several hundred demonstrators had gathered around Guangzhou's city hall, some carrying signs that read, "Oppose the trash incinerator; Support a green Panyu." About 100 police officers converged to face off with the protesters, says Wen Yunchao, a blogger who was at the scene. "The protest has been organized and peaceful," he said. When asked by officials to select five representatives to negotiate their demands, the crowd began to chant, "We don't want to be represented," said Wen. People seen as protest leaders are often targeted for future punishment.
Environmental concerns are a common cause of unrest in China. Last summer a handful of villages in the country's interior exploded with anger over heavy metal factories residents suspected of polluting the air and groundwater. Those protests were cases of poor residents who, having had their complaints ignored by factory managers and local officials, felt compelled to take matters into their own hands, sometimes shuttering the offending plants by force.
Monday's protest represents a different thread of environmental demonstration, in which well-organized, middle class residents gather to oppose a threat to their common interests, says Shanghai-based environmental attorney Charles McElwee. It follows similar efforts by citizens to block a chemical plant in the coastal city of Xiamen in 2007 and a demonstration against a proposed petrochemical facility near Chengdu in 2008. "They are generally directed more toward proposed projects that they think may have an impact to health or property values," he says. "These are classic 'not in my backyard' protests that you see happen in developed western countries." And with few effective avenues for people to voice their complaints about the ambitious industrial projects springing up around the country, McElwee says, they "will continue to happen, I think, with increasing frequency."
Guangzhou officials say they have begun an environmental assessment of the incinerator project and are accepting public opinions of the plans. But they have a long way to go before public opinion is assuaged. Wen, the blogger, described one older woman who knelt for more than two hours in front of the municipal building in protest. The crowd began to chant, 'Auntie is kneeling; mayor come out.' Wen posted the call on his Twitter account, where it repeated dozens more times during the day by Chinese users.
With reporting by Jessie Jiang