A May Fourth Crackdown: the Chengdu Anti-PX Demonstration

Sabri Coskun is a writer and student who spends several months every year in Chengdu, Sichuan province. His interests include politics, activism and studying how different cultures interact. He is a freelance writer who contributes to various publications in Europe and Asia on issues related to China.—The Editors



Chengdu has not seen a crackdown on political dissent like the one we witnessed on the weekend of 4-5 May 2013 in some time. Not when the Tibetans rose up in 2008, not in response to previous demonstrations against the same Pengzhou PX plant that was the focus of recent repression, nor against various government cover-ups of this or that corruption scandal. Even the Wang Lijun-Bo Xilai affair didn’t elicit the same kind of mobilisation as was seen this year.

And a ‘mobilisation’ it was, one that was along the lines of the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic or the May 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake relief effort, in which the local government engaged broadly with the society in order to get its message across. However, in May this year, the message was: ‘Don’t attend the protests against the Pengzhou PX factory planned for the weekend of 4-5 May at Jiuyuanqiao in central Chengdu.’ In the lead-up to the weekend, work units across the city received phone calls from district-level officials, police officers and even friends in government positions, warning managers and leaders that the planned protests were strictly off limits. The city’s Information Bureau spread a similar message via Weibo, Weixin, and SMS texts. Many work units – especially government places of work – organised formal or informal workdays over the weekend as well.

Activists across the city were variously contacted, detained, warned or asked ‘out to tea’. Internet search terms like ‘poison’ and ‘environmental protest’ were scrubbed from the Internet, and the city erected aluminum blue walls, normally set up at construction sites, around Jiuyuanqiao to obstruct possible protests.

High school and university students across Chengdu were astounded to learn that they would be required to remain at school over the weekend. Many schools simply issued a decree to that effect and supplemented the command with extra lashings of homework or, in some rare cases, fun activities. A few of the larger, more famous schools like No. 7 Middle School, have children with rich and influential parents. These students did trickle out of the gates as their parents argued with and cajoled the police to allow their children to leave.

At Meishi International School dozens of police stood guard at the front and back gates to kept the kids separated from their parents with the kind of dumb, brute force that low-tier oppressors evince all over the world. Parents yelled at the young men from the countryside in uniform and pleaded with their more urbanised superiors. Some kids cried at the gates and teachers milled about – the foreigners in anger and the Chinese in confusion. Eventually, the police decide that they had got their message across and children started streaming out through the gates around 3:00pm.

The crackdown worked: the planned protest did not materialise.

Why this Crackdown Now?
It was a protest mooted at a time of widespread public dissatisfaction with Huang Xingchu 黄新初, the Party Secretary of Chengdu. Locals often refer to him as ‘Digger Huang’ (Huang Wawa 黄挖挖), a reference to the numerous construction projects underway in the city, many of which are unpopular. The most high-profile of these is the ‘bus rapid transit’ (BRT) addition to the Second Ring Road which is nearing completion. The price tag for the project is rumoured to be around forty billion yuan, although a 2005 feasibility study estimated the costs to be around one billion. Citizens talk about corruption in the construction industry – and Digger Huang’s involvement in them — as a matter of accepted fact. Any mention of the expression ‘Huang Wawa‘ in the media however results in the same, swift response: one Chengdu Daily news reporter found himself in jail for fifteen days for using the nickname on his Weibo account, and the Chinese characters for the name are a blocked search term on social media sites like Sina Weibo.

Nonetheless, the crackdown on the anti PX demonstration scheduled for 4-5 May was unprecedented. The planned protests were directed against a small project in a run-down industrial town called Pengzhou an hour outside the city.

But why did Chengdu authorities react so strongly, when a similar protest in Kunming, Yunnan province, was allowed to proceed relatively unmolested?

The PX plant is not a vital, economic component of Chengdu’s economic rise. In fact, the petrochemical industry has no part in the finance and tech-centred economic surge that the city has been tirelessly promoting over the past few years. According to the city’s plans, apps and banks are supposed to lead Chengdu into the future, not oil and pipelines. The little bit of gas that Sichuan has managed to pull out of the ground safely is nothing compared to the reserves in the far northwest of the People’s Republic, and may not even be as lucrative as the hydroelectric power latent in the rushing rivers of the southwestern.

The unprecedented city-wide crackdown is not just about PX and Pengzhou. It’s about preventing another 4 May 1919, or 4 June 1989. It’s about maintaining order in the hub of western China. Chengdu is the heart of western China – politically and economically – and the authorities must have reasoned that a protest here, during the volatile month of May, had a much greater chance of spiralling out of control than, say, a protest in Kunming. This recent crackdown was about keeping the lid on old, festering grievances – outrage over widespread corruption in the construction sector, increased levels of pollution levels, rising prices and stagnant wages – and it’s about keeping things quiet until the 2013 Fortune Global Forum scheduled for the city on 6-8 June 2013 has finished.

Update: Since this article was written and submitted to The China Story Journal, the anti PX protests in Kunming have grown, and been met with a backlash from the local authorities. The government has banned bulk sales of white T-shirts and face masks used by protestors, and instructed photocopying shops to stop printing leaflets for the protesters.

Further Reading
Associated Press: China City Quashes Protest Against Petro PlantResidents Shout ‘Protest!’ Over Refinery in China
To Silence Discontent, Chinese Officials Alter Workweek
China Digital Times: Sensitive Words: Poison, Environmental Protests
Radio Free Asia: Chengdu Activists Held Ahead of Chemical Plant Protest