Image: Chinese protesters
Thousands of people staged a peaceful demonstration on June 1 against the construction of a chemical plant in Xiamen, a city in southeastern China.
updated 10/15/2007 6:35:00 PM ET 2007-10-15T22:35:00

It was a sight to behold: Thousands of protesters massed on the streets of one of China’s most prosperous cities, demanding that construction of a chemical plant close to their homes be stopped.

Demonstrators, many wearing yellow bands of cloth in a show of unity, faced down a wall of policemen, marching past skyscrapers and shopping malls as onlookers passed out bottles of water under the hot June sun.

The protest led the government to halt construction of the $1.4 billion facility, at least for now, and became emblematic of the simmering discontent facing Chinese leaders.

As Communist Party leaders gathering in Beijing this week call for creating a “harmonious society,” signs abound that the country is far from it. In China’s wrenching transformation from a poor, largely agricultural society to a prosperous industrial one, the party is wrestling with changes that have angered many Chinese.

“Farmers have lost their land, workers of state-owned companies have gotten laid off, people living at the bottom of society struggle in their daily lives, there is a huge difference in incomes of the rich and the poor, and a large amount of violence exists,” said Ai Xiaoming, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University and an advocate for human rights and legal reform.

“These are signs of a disharmonious society,” she said from Guangzhou, the capital of prosperous Guangdong province, where rising land prices have touched off disputes between farmers and developers.

Uphill task to ease social tensions
The tensions pose a challenge for the authoritarian communist government, which often tries to suppress dissent, and especially for President Hu Jintao. In power for five years, Hu has made a priority of distributing the benefits of recent decades of speedy economic growth more evenly.

He has used the phrase “creating a harmonious society” and a related phrase, “the scientific outlook on development,” as slogans for this campaign. Senior Communist Party members are expected to weave the ideologies into a final draft of a document outlining priorities for the next five years.

“We will spare no effort to solve the most specific problems of the utmost and immediate concern to the people and strive to create a situation in which all people do their best, find their proper places in society and live together in harmony,” Hu told more than 2,200 delegates Monday in the weeklong conclave’s opening speech.

Hu’s government has set aside billions of dollars in new farm subsidies, increased spending on social security, education and health care, and made public efforts to root out rampant corruption. But it is an uphill task to ease social tensions.

Police, villagers clash over land seizes
According to the most recent figures from the Ministry of Public Security, 87,000 “mass incidents” were reported in 2005, including a deadly clash between police and villagers over the seizure of land for a power plant. And just last month, thousands of demobilized soldiers sent to railway training centers rioted in at least three cities.

Image: Chinese protester
A protester holds up a sign on June 1 that reads "Must stop construction, Not suspend Construction" during the protest in Xiamen.
Then there’s the emerging middle class, whose investments in homes, cars and their children’s education gives them a growing stake in society and an awareness of their rights.

“The amount of demonstrations is growing as social issues of instability are increasing. People’s sense of safeguarding their rights is awakening,” wrote Wen Yunchao, a columnist for the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, who witnessed the June 1-2 protests in Xiamen. “I will slap anyone who says today’s China is harmonious.”

Protests over toxic plant
In Xiamen, a tropical port city once known in the West as Amoy and once a haven for pirates and the opium trade, the demonstrations centered around construction of a Tenglong Aromatic PX Co. plant in the coveted Haicang district, a breezy suburb west of the city of 1.6 million.

The plant would have made the petrochemical paraxylene, which is used in the production of plastics, polyester and film> It can cause eye, nose or throat irritation and chronic exposure may result in death.

Residents say they were kept in the dark about the project until details started trickling out in March. Soon, text messages, blogs, Internet bulletin boards and computer messenger services were abuzz. One phone message likened the plant to an atomic bomb being dropped on Xiamen. Talk of protest gathered steam.

“I felt that if everyone went, we could make a change,” said Wu, a 32-year-old resident who did not want his full name used for fear of reprisals and who carried his 3-year-old son to the protest. “If my son asks me in the future ’Where were you when the project was being built, Dad?’ I would feel ashamed if I had not dared to join the march.”

After the protest, the State Environmental Protection Administration said it was conducting a new environmental assessment for the entire city, including the paraxylene plant.

Less than two miles from the construction site, many apartments now sit empty because no one wants to live there, and real estate prices have plunged. Residents are not sure if their victory was final or temporary.

Telephones at state and city government offices were not answered. Company officials refused to release any information and hung up the telephone repeatedly.

Expert: No real democratic change
In calling for social harmony, Hu seems to be trying to juggle rising expectations by meeting demands for better living standards while forestalling any chance for meaningful political change, experts said.

“It does not in any way imply a real democratic change,” said Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics at Oxford University. “If anything, it pre-empts the need for political reform.”

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