The Xiamen PX Project

(Southern Weekend)  Xiamen Calls An Abrupt Halt to the PX Project to Deal with the Public Crisis.  By Zhu Hongjun (朱红军).  May 28, 2007.

[in translation]

How did a chemical industrial project that "has completed all procedures in accordance with the laws and regulations," drew investments of 10.8 billion yuan and may bring a GDP of over 80 million yuan to the city be "halted temporarily" as a result of the actions of scientists, Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference members and broad public opinion?

On the morning of May 30, on the eighth floor of the Xiamen City Cultural Palace, the Xiamen City Executive Vice-mayor Ding Guoyan announced a temporary halt to the Haicang PX Project (PX stands for xylene, which is a raw material used in chemical production).  He also said that the city government has commissioned a new authoritative environment impact assessment organization to conduct a more extensive environment impact study and to study the impact of the entire chemical industrial zone on the environment.

There were no details about this environment impact assessment organization nor a timetable.  The entire press conference took just a few minutes to complete.

Concerning this sudden decision to "halt construction," the Xiamen reporters could only say that "they do not understand the twists and turns."

On May 28, <Xiamen Evening News> published a 10,000 word article in which the city environmental protection bureau director was interviewed.  The report title was <The Haicang PX project is under construction after being approved according to the legal state procedures>.  This was publicly regarded as the signal that the government is strongly pushing the project through.

On the morning of May 29, the Xiamen city government asked the various departments to prepare to work to stabilize and rally the masses in order to ensure that the PX project will go through smoothly.

The turnabout may have occurred on the afternoon of May 29.  The Xiamen city principal leaders were asked to go to Fuzhou and present to the Fujian provincial party committee on the progress of the PX project as well as public opinion.  According to reports, the Fujian provincial party committee held an emergency meeting to discuss this topic.

That evening, the Xiamen city government was ready to call a press conference in Haicang district.  But after several changes, it was finally canceled.  The press conference was changed to 8:50am on the morning of May 30 and the decision to "halt construction temporarily" was announced.

When Ding Guoyan spoke about this, he said that the decision to postpone the construction and re-do the environment assessment had the support and understanding of the superiors.

A Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference member who had signed the petition told the Southern Weekend reporter immediately afterwards that he welcomed and praised the government's respect for public opinion.  He believed that the interest of the people of Xiamen to protect their environment and the government's ruling ability will both be refined and elevated as a result of this episode.

He also hoped that during the new environment impact assessment study, the government will continue the same style by listening to public opinion, offer the public the chance to participate and guarantee the fairness and transparency of the environment assessment.  "The citizens will only support the decision of the government when there is a scientific and fair result."

The sudden decision to "halt construction temporarily" was due to the speculations over the past several months all over Xiamen about the various safety and environmental issues about the PX project.

On May 27, it was partially cloudy in Xiamen with periods of rain.  On the cruise boats to Gulang Island, in the bustling roadside restaurants in Shahe Road and even down at the remote villages in the Haicang district, everybody was talking about the Haicang PX project.

"Did you receive the SMS?"  This was the opening remark when Xiamen citizens meet each other.  The SMS refers to the one about the PX project.  The Xinhua News Agency cited part of its contents: "The Xianglu Group has invested in the project in the Haicang district.  If this highly toxic chemical product is ever manufactured, it would be like setting off an atomic bomb in all of Xiamen.  The people of Xiamen will live with leukemia and deformed babies.  We want to live and we want to be healthy!  International organizations require these types of projects to be developed at least 100 kilometers away from cities.  Xiamen will be only 16 kilometers away ..."

At this moment, the Internet has become the place where citizens express their voices.  At the popular Xiamen Internet communities such as Little Fish and the public BBS of Xiamen University, posts related to the PX project generally attracted tens of thousands of page views.  "Protect Xiamen" and "Give me back my blue sky" appeared frequently in the titles of Internet posts.

Due to the absence of any authoritative and trustworthy information, the Southern Weekend reporter discovered that some of the rumors bothered on being absurd.

Concerning the dangers posed by PX itself, the Southern Weekend reporter consulted a chemistry expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  He consulted large amounts of information and used his own expertise in applied chemistry.  He told the reporter: "Xylene itself is a mildly toxic.  For a chemistry expert, xylene is no different from any ordinary chemical whose risks can be controlled.  As for the toxicity, it can only occur when it is not burned thoroughly."

Concerning the rumor that PX can easily lead to deformed babies, he rejected it: "That is exaggerated.  It stimulates the nervous system, but the effect is transient."

But the sentiments of fear aroused by the rumor has affected the real estate industry in the Haicang district of Xiamen city.  The PX project was next to the Future Coast real estate development project.  This large, upscale residential area has been nicknamed the "Stinky Coast."  According to the report, some of the buyers have attempted unsuccessfully to back out of their commitments.  The prices of the second-hand apartments have also tumbled.  But the Haicang Investment and Development Corporation, which is the real estate development for the Future Coast project, declined to comment.

According to a real estate industry worker who had studied the Haicang area, "at its worst, as many as 30% of the buyers attempted to back out of their deals."  Five years ago, Haicang had decided to become the "Pudong" of Xiamen.  They tried their best to attract real estate developers, so the current situation is disturbing.  He predicted that real estate in Haicang will enter a temporary painful period over the PX project.

Several schools near the PX project may also be affected.  These include the Beijing Normal University's Haicang campus.  According to a former leader, the university signed on quickly in 2003 at the invitation of Haicang district.  Campus construction began in March and they were recruiting students by late September.  When the campus was completed, they suddenly realized that there were chemical industrial factories full of smoke stacks just several hundred meters away.

If it was just about sour and stinking smells, that might be tolerable. But the problem at the university is that the PX project may directly cause apartment owners to move out and hence affects its resources.

A small number of Xiamen citizens told the Southern Weekend reporter that they have attempted to switch schools for their children with the goal of getting them out of danger.

A student who had returned from overseas said that the PX project is destroying the Xiamen citizens' sense of self-confidence and superiority about their living environment.

Although the PX project has raised a great deal of controversy among the people, its has not paused until the announcement of the temporary halt on May 30.

On Sunday (May 27), the Southern Weekend reporter went to the site of the PX project and saw that the coal warehouse contracted out to the Zhejiang Dongfang Construction Group was actively working on the pilings.

The large dome building 120 meters in diameter requires a total of 580 pilings.  The Dongfang Group managed to complete most of those by working continuously for one month.  The remaining pilings will be completed within ten days.  The factory and the boilers remain to be done.  A worker at the site said, "The company is sending extra people and equipment over."

Previously, a manager of the Tenglong (Special Resin) Company that is an investor in the PX project told Southern Weekend confidently: "Not only will the project not stop; construction will be accelerated."

The progress of the project showed that this was true.  In August 2006, the Haicang Land Development Corporation began land requisitioning for the project.  Within 40 days, 1,920 mu of land had been cleared.  Forty days later, all the land involved had been cleared.  This was praised as the "unprecedented Haicang speed."

This manager also told the Southern Weekend reporter that even as the land requisitioning was going on, most of the factory equipment had been ordered and they were only waiting to enter the factory area in 2008.  This included the supply contract with the Harbin Air-conditioning Factory for several thousand air conditioners.

It was verified by a certain Xiamen city bank worker that several banks have made loans totaling several billion yuan to this project.

The plan for the investor Xianglu Chemical Fibers is to have full production of 800,000 tons of PX at the end of 2008.

Once this project is realized, it will be the biggest in the world for PX and other derivative products.  The minimum contribution towards Xiamen's GDP is 80 billion yuan, which is equal to 1/4 of the present GDP of Xiamen.

The official information also showed the process by which the project was approved.  According to information, the State Council approved the project in February 2004.  The State Land Resources Department examined the budget for the land, the State Environmental Protection Administration passed the environmental impact assessment report in July 2005, the State Development and Reform Committee included as one of the seven large-scale PX project in the list of seven "115" PX projects and approved the application in July 2006.

The Southern Weekend reporter obtained confirmation of the above from persons with the State Environmental Protection Administration.  "The Environmental Protection Administration had a technical study done by a third party to see if the technology is scientific.  They also checked if the report meets the legal requirements.  They approved the report after review.  At the time, everything was passed during the review," said an official with the State Environmental Protection Administration's Assessment Department.

If it were not for the fat that there was a proposal from six Chinese Academy of Sciences academicians and more than 100 Political Consultative Conference members during the two Congresses this year, the Haicang project might never have come into under the public eye.

The instigator of the proposal was Chinese Academy of Sciences member Zhao Yufen of Xiamen University.  She learned about the existence of this chemical industrial project early this year.  Based upon her knowledge of chemistry and environmental protection, she felt that the ecology of Xiamen would be directly impacted when hazardous chemical raw materials are produced in massive quantities in the Haicang district which is so close of the city center of Xiamen.

Her colleague Yuan Dongxian, who is a professor of the School of Environmental Science at Xiamen University, began to collect and study overseas information and realized that this was a serious matter.  When Zhao was interviewed by the media, she enumerated the possible safety consequences and pollution risks of the PX project.  These included mainly: International practice is to place such a project 70 kilometers away from the cities, but the distance is 20 kilometers in China.  However, the Haicang PX project is only 7 kilometers away from the city center, and this is the closest instance in the world.

After this proposal was reported in the media, there was a great stir among the citizens of Xiamen.  The common feeling was that the placement of the chemical industry in Xiamen is vitally connected to public interests, so why was this never disclosed?

A worker with the Xiamen People's Congress told the Southern Weekend reporter that the PX project was debated several years ago, but it was always handled in a low-keyed manner.

Earlier in October 2005, a magazine under the Xiamen city Environmental Protection Administration published an essay that pointed out that the people are attributing the deterioration of air quality in the Haicang district to "the Haicang petroleum and chemical development zone and that there are contradictions with the plans for the new Haicang city.  Hereafter, the PX project and other big petroleum and chemical projects will make these contradictions even more acute."  The essay recommended that the government should pay serious attention.

A member of the Xiamen Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference recalled that when the project was approved in 2006, a number of members who were knowledgeable about the chemical industry were privately concerned about environmental pollution.

But "there was no proposal from Conference members related to the issue," said a leader of the Xiamen Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference to the Southern Weekend reporter.

But during this year's meeting of the Xiamen Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, there was vigorous debate over the PX project.  Some Conference members asked whether Xiamen needed to bring in this type of project.

Last month, the Xiamen city Political Consultative Conference invited the city leaders to explain to the newly appointed members about the urban development plans and results in Xiamen.  The PX project was not included in the contents.  A Conference member said, "That was actually what people cared most about."

Some people even connected it with the Jilin benzene factory two years ago.  The disastrous consequences of that incident made people fearful.

When the SMS messages are flying all over Xiamen, the Xiamen city government used a public announcement to provide certain replies to people's doubts.

On the evening of May 28, <Xiamen Evening News> (a member of the Xiamen Daily News group) set aside two prominent pages to publish a 10,000-word essay in which the Environmental Protection Administration director responded to questions from the reporter and also introduced the full picture of the Haicang PX project.

On the same day, the project investor Xianglu Chemical Fiber Corporation published an interview of its general manger by a reporter on the front page of its website.  The purpose was to dispel certain street rumors and quell the controversies.

The essay disputed the allegation about a connection between PX and the benzene factory explosion at the Jilin Chemical plant.  It was pointed out that PX does not have the toxicity of the benzene and nitrobenzene in the Jilin Chemical explosion, and that "its safety indicator is in the same class as gasoline."  At the same time, it challenged the doubts about the safe distance, citing the examples of the Shell Chemical Industrial zone, the Yangzi Petroleum Chemical zone, the Dalian Petroleum Chemical Zone and so on.  They used these points to emphasize that the PX project does not break away from practice.

The essay also introduced the advanced global environmental technology and equipment used in the project, and the system of environment protection procedures and emergency plans developed in conjunction with the local government and relevant departments.  The conclusion was that the quality of environmental protection in this project not only exceeds the national standards, but it even reaches advanced global standards.

As an important key point, the project has passed the various inspections required by the state and all procedures have been completed.

Although this action was late in coming, it has the effect of assuaging the people at the critical moment.

During the sensitive period around May 27, Xiamen University academician Zhao Yufen who instigated the proposal from the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference members declined to be interviewed by Southern Weekend.

Academician Zhao's colleague Yuan Dongxian, who is an environmental scientist collecting scientific evidence on the risks from the PX project, said that they had tried to confine the debate within the scope of scientific discussion.  But at a time when SMS messages are flying all over the place, Zhao told the Southern Weekend reporter: "It is not appropriate to be interviewed because the academic debate has risen to a non-academic level."  During a break in a meeting on the evening of May 28, she whispered: "Things have become more and more complicated."

Around the time of the two Congresses, five other academicians and 105 members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference made the public appeal.

Academician Huang Benli was one of them.

On the evening of May 28, he told the Southern Weekend reporter: "I never imagined that things could get so complicated" and "I can only trust in the government's explanations."  He had studied physics and he said that he had no knowledge in environmental protection.  He said that he signed the joint petition out of an instinctive desire to protect the environment.

Another academician Tian Zhongqun has read the Q&A from the Environmental Protection Administration carefully and said that he hopes that those scientists who participated in the environmental impact assessment will publicly discuss the issues in the realm of science in a scientific manner.

He said that due to the immense public response and the lack of public participation in the previous environmental impact assessment, the relevant departments should hire an "excellent, independent and disinterested" environmental assessment organization to re-do the study.  "The process should be fair and the results should be open."

He said that the people will respect the scientific results from a genuinely scientific study.  "History will provide an answer ultimately.  Whether a policy is right or wrong will be tested over time."

On the evening when the decision to temporarily halt construction was announced on May 30, academician Zhao Yufen finally broke her silence: "This is just a temporally stalling solution.  This is a long way from our demand to move the site away."

She strongly urged that since the environmental impact is being re-assessed, the numbers of the evaluating organization and the participants should be announced.  The public should be able to participate and monitor fully.

Although the government has spoken publicly, the doubts of some citizens and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference members cannot be so easily dispelled.  Apart from the uncertainly over "in case anything happens," they are also worried about the fact that the environment has deteriorated in the Haicang district in recent years.

The Xianglu Chemical Fibers Company, which is an investor, lists on its website the honors that it has received in recent years, including the "advanced environmental protection units" and "villa-style cultural units" and so on.  But the relevant facts show that the people have reservations about whether pollution has been occurring.

In neighboring Wencuo village, the residents told the Southern Weekend reporter that there is always an acrid smell at night, when the stinging in the nose sometimes make it hard to go to sleep.

The teachers at the nearby Beijing Normal University's Haicang campus have also smelled the odor.  The various owners of the Future Coast apartments have complained to the environment protection agency numerous times.

In early 2006, when the Xiamen government work report asked for the opinions of certain Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference members, some of them raised doubts about the assertion in the report that "the air quality was good."  A Conference member who was present at the time told the Southern Weekend reporter that the biggest controversy was over the air quality near the Xianglu Chemical Fibers facility in Haicang district.

Although the company had replied that the smell was harmless to humans and under the state emission standards, the people continued to harbor doubts.

In March this year, there was a news report that the air quality in Xiamen had fallen from number one among nine cities to number three.  This caused citizens to become worried.  When the Xiamen city Environmental Protection Administration was interviewed, they said that the principal culprit was automobile exhaust.  But many people instinctively blamed it on the tall smoke stacks in the Haicang Chemical Industrial Zone.

So why was such a major chemical industrial project located in the Haicang development zone so close to the principal urban area of Xiamen?

Haicang is situated on the coast right across Xiamen Island and it was connected to Xiamen in 1997 via the Haicang Bridge.  A member of the Xiamen Political Consultative Committee told the Southern Weekend reporter that the state approved the establishment of a Xiamen Special Economic Zone in the Haicang Development Zone back in 1990.  The special target was the chemical industry and the project was known as the "901 project."

"The background was that they wanted to attract the Taiwan businessman Wang Rongqing to invest and they set aside an area about 20 square kilometers in the area," said an informed source.

Later, the Wang Rongqing investment project did not go though.  "As compensation, the 100 million yuan in deposit for the land was donated by Wang Rongqing to erect a building at the Xiamen Jimei University and another building at a Xiamen hospital."

For a long period of time, the Haicang Chemical Industrial Zone waited for development.  Although Xianglu Chemical Fibers and a small number of corporations are there, the chemical industry has not blossomed.  "This was a sticky local issue."

Around 2000, Haicang became a new hot spot for real estate development in Xiamen.  The local government accelerated the development of real estate in Haicang in order to create the Xiamen's own "Pudong."  The Haicang Investment and Development Limited Corporation, which has government background, began the "Future Coast" estates and this triggered the trend.

Based upon the rising housing price within Xiamen Island itself, many citizens turned their attention to Haicang.  All of a sudden, the potential of Haicang was unlimited.

Among the principal opponents to the PX project are many people who have bought houses or started businesses in Haicang.  "We went there for the living and the environment.  But we end up being the middle of chemical industrial smokestacks.  Who is responsible for our situation?"

A Xiamen city leader who was responsible for urban planning said: "In the planning for Haicang, there were problems with not having good historical knowledge, or forward vision, or being systematic.  There is no other way to explain why Haicang was trying to attract housing construction as well as bringing in a major chemical industrial project."

From chemical industry to real estate to chemical industry, the history of development of the Haicang Development Zone was one of constantly wavering until the conflict surfaced in the PX project.

Another issue that has been brought up was: Where will Xiamen be heading towards?  This coastal city is famous for the advantages of its environment and has been named by the United Nations as the best city in the world to live in.  It is a city that has the first group of Category 5A scenic areas such as Gulang Island.  Should it have the chemical industry as its mainstay industry?

"Xiamen is small in area.  It does not matter where it is placed because it will affect everything."  Some citizens are worried that the scope of the PX zone and that its eventual weight will alter the future of Xiamen.  "The advantages of the environment are permanent, but chemical products depend on market fluctuations.  So which is more important?"

According to the cited leaders, Wang Rongqing had invested in an electricity generation plant in the Haicang district in 1900.  After several rounds of debate, the project was abandoned due to the fear of environmental damage from acid rain, specifically in terms of the threat to the tourist industry represented mainly by Gulang Island.  Wang later moved the electricity generation plant to Zhangzhou.

The environmental assessment officials with the State Environmental Protection Agency said that the problem arose mainly from the definition of the functions of the planned area.  It used to be a chemical industrial zone but a contradiction was introduced when a large number of residential houses and people were brought in.  "There is no good solution.  We will have to change the functionality of the area."

Thus, no matter what the new environment impact assessment will be, the Xiamen government is tied up in a dilemma:  If they bring in the project, they will have to deal with the consequences at the real estate projects that they brought in over the past years.  "This is not an easy matter."  But if they abandon the project, Xiamen will have lost an excellent opportunity to develop a heavy chemical industry, which entails several tens of billions of yuan in GDP as well as the accompanying employment opportunities.

The future fate of the city of Xiamen will therefore be changed, one way or the other.

(Washington Post)  Text Messages Giving Voice to Chinese.  By Edward Cody.  June 28, 2007.

By the hundreds of thousands, the urgent text messages ricocheted around cellphones in Xiamen, warning of a catastrophe that would spoil the city's beautiful seaside environment and foul its sweet-smelling tropical breezes.

By promoting the construction of a giant chemical factory among the suburban palm trees, the local government was "setting off an atomic bomb in all of Xiamen," the massive message sprays charged, predicting that the plant would cause "leukemia and deformed babies" among the 2 million-plus residents of this city on China's southern rim, just opposite Taiwan.

The environmental activists behind the messages might have exaggerated the danger with their florid language, experts said. But their passionate opposition to the chemical plant generated an explosion of public anger that forced a halt in construction, pending further environmental impact studies by authorities in Beijing, and produced large demonstrations June 1 and 2, drawing national publicity.

The delay marked a rare instance of public opinion in China rising from the streets and compelling a change of policy by Communist Party bureaucrats. It was a dramatic illustration of the potential of technology -- particularly cellphones and the Internet -- to challenge the rigorous censorship and political controls through which the party maintains its monopoly on power over China's 1.4 billion people.

"I think this is a great precedent for China," said Zhong Xiaoyong, a Xiamen resident who, in his persona as the blogger Lian Yue, wrote extensively on efforts to stop construction of the factory.

Despite efforts by local Public Security Bureau technicians to block the cellphone campaign, thousands of people heeded the alarm during the last days of May. Despite warnings from city hall and a large turnout of uniformed and plainclothes police, they marched in hot, muggy weather through the streets of Xiamen to protest the chemical factory being built on Haicang, an industrial and residential island across a narrow strait from downtown Xiamen.

The demonstrations were largely peaceful, except for pushing against policemen lined up to stop the march, witnesses said. About 8,000 to 10,000 people participated the first day and half that many the second day. But something unprecedented occurred that gave the demonstrators a power even they had not envisioned: Citizen journalists carrying cellphones sent text messages about the action to bloggers in Guangzhou and other cities, who then posted real-time reports for the entire country to see.

"The second police defense line has been dispersed," Wen Yunchao, one such witness, typed to a friend in Guangzhou. "There is pushing and shoving. The police wall has broken down."

Chinese tuned in to the blogosphere in great numbers, viewing written accounts and cellphone photographs. Sites carrying the live reports recorded thousands of hits. Some sites were knocked out by security monitors. But by then their reports had bounced to other sites around the country, keeping one step ahead of the censors. Many of those tuned in were traditional newspaper and magazine reporters whose editors were afraid to cover the protests because of warnings from the Xiamen party Propaganda Department.

"The Chinese government controls the traditional press, so the news circulated on the Internet and cellphones," Wen, also a blogger, said later. "This showed that the Chinese people can send out their own news, and the authorities have no way to stop it entirely. This had so much impact. I think virtually every media worker in China was looking at it and keeping up with it."

Wen said he and his friends have since concluded that if protesters had been armed with cellphones and computers in 1989, there would have been a different outcome to the notorious Tiananmen Square protest, which ended with intervention by the People's Liberation Army and the killings of hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the streets of Beijing.

Scientist Snubbed, Blogger Steps In

The campaign against the Tenglong Aromatic PX (Xiamen) Co. Ltd. factory had started months earlier. Zhao Yufen, a U.S.-trained chemistry professor at Xiamen University and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, had organized a petition in which she and 100 other signatories argued against the 300-acre, $1.4 billion factory complex.

The factory, being built by Taiwanese businessman Chen Yu-hao, was to make paraxylene, which is used in plastics, polyester and other synthetic products. Paraxylene can cause eye, ear, nose and throat irritations and, with prolonged exposure, damage to the nervous system. But Zhao's real objection was the danger of an accident. Such an eventuality was not without precedent. A chemical factory exploded in northern China in 2005, sending toxic chemicals into the Songhua River and fouling the water supply in the major city of Harbin.

Zhao also pressed her case with local officials and, in Beijing, with the National Development and Reform Commission. But with economic development as the party watchword, they were not moved. The government, including the State Environmental Protection Administration, had already approved the project, she was told, so there was nothing more to discuss.

He Lifeng, the Xiamen Communist Party secretary, was pushing hard to get the factory built. It would almost double the city's gross domestic product to $26 billion, officials here argued, making the deal a potential milestone on He's career path. Moreover, Chen, the Taiwanese owner, was known as an opponent of Taiwanese independence, thus a businessman to be cultivated.

A letter from He cited in the Oriental Weekly magazine, affiliated with the official New China News Agency, urged people in the Xiamen government to disregard the objections. As a result, the Xiamen party Propaganda Bureau made sure the reservations of Zhao and others were not discussed in public. Instead, local newspapers and television news programs ran story after story on the economic benefits that would come to Xiamen because of the new factory.

"They only had positive news about it," recalled Zhong, the blogger known as Lian Yue. "They just said it was a great project. . . . But little by little, the news broke through the blackout."

One reason was Zhong, who used his blog to raise Zhao's questions and spread them among the Xiamen public. Zhong, 37, was making his living mainly by freelancing commentary to newspapers and magazines, and his wife, a lawyer, had steady work in the city. As a result, he was less subject to pressure from the Propaganda Department than his colleagues at Xiamen's newspapers and television stations, who risked losing their salaries, health insurance, housing subsidies and other benefits if they defied orders from the censors.

"They were afraid," he said. "As for me, I don't rely on any work unit, so I had less to worry about. If I had been working in a regular job, I couldn't have done it."

Interest Widens, Beijing Takes Notice

As Zhong and other Internet commentators spread the alert, reporters from national magazines started to show up in Xiamen to interview Zhao and report on the hazards. Inspired by the Propaganda Department, local newspapers ran stories about how the outsiders were practicing "yellow journalism" and harming Xiamen's reputation. Several of the national reporters said their editors were contacted by Xiamen's Propaganda Department and warned against running the story.

"They thought they could control the national media the same way they controlled the media in Xiamen," one of them recalled, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear the Xiamen censors could still harm him or his editors.

The cellphone campaign, meanwhile, picked up momentum. Residents of Xiamen, whose gentle hills overlook a sun-splashed bay dotted with islands leading into the Taiwan Strait, have long been proud of their city's natural beauty; they were quick to mobilize against what they were being told was a threat to the environment.

Authorities in Beijing and Fuzhou, the Fujian provincial capital, also started to take notice. President Hu Jintao was about to travel to Germany for a meeting with leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized countries, where China's reputation as a polluter would be a topic of discussion, and this was no time for an embarrassing environmental dispute.

As a result, He and his party committee were summoned to Fuzhou on May 29 to review environmental studies carried out when the factory was approved in 2005. Since then, city officials acknowledged, residential neighborhoods had been allowed to rise near the factory site. A delay was agreed; He visited the construction site May 30 and said nothing would be harmed by taking a second look.

But by then the protest momentum had grown too strong to stop. Xiamen residents no longer trusted the government on the factory issue, participants said, and they feared the new study would only confirm earlier authorizations. The protest marches went off as scheduled, ignoring announcements by the Xiamen city government -- including one made while the demonstrators were in the street -- that the factory project was on hold.

"Protect our children's health," the banners read.

Xiamen authorities accused the marchers of violating the law. Well-intentioned citizens were being manipulated by troublemakers, the Public Security Bureau warned. Du Mingcong, vice director of the Xiamen People's Congress standing committee, expressed concern that demonstrating in such hot weather could "damage the participants' mental and physical health."

But such concern found no echo in Beijing. Pan Yue, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said Xiamen should think again about the chemical plant. People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, ran a front-page editorial condemning local officials who had disregarded President Hu's admonitions to preserve the environment.

The message was received loud and clear here in Xiamen. Mayor Liu Cigui, speaking to reporters in Hong Kong, agreed that the project might have to be shelved. His spokesman, Shen Canhuang, said the decision had been deferred to the central government.

Professor Zhao, meanwhile, warned that the anti-pollution bureaucrats might consider only whether the plant endangers people living in the nearby housing developments. Although she declined a formal interview, saying it would have to be approved by the Propaganda Department, Zhao said in a telephone conversation that the real problem remains whether the plant should be built near Xiamen at all.

"This is for the environmental safety of Xiamen," she said. "Xiamen is special."

Related Link