DALIAN, China — This northeastern port city, with its gleaming skyscrapers, seaside yacht club, and Cartier and Armani boutiques on People's Road, might seem about the least likely site for one of China's largest protests in years. Dalian is, after all, the host of regional World Economic Forum meetings, where Davos Man comes to China; a center of electronics manufacturing; and a popular holiday destination. Since the mid-1990s, it has been widely considered among the country's cleanest and most livable cities, a peaceful place where tourists come to watch dolphin shows at "Sun Asia Ocean World" and where wealthy older couples come to retire by the sea. This is, in other words, not obviously a city on the brink.
But on Sunday, Aug. 14, Dalian erupted. An estimated 12,000 people packed the manicured grass of People's Square opposite Dalian's city hall and lined many surrounding streets. They had come to demand that a chemical plant perched on the coast be shuttered and relocated, immediately. The local government and international media sat bolt upright -- the former issuing promises to move the factory; the latter, surprised praise. In Dalian, it's called the "8-14 event."
Why did this happen? Why now, and why Dalian?
Anger over pollution is not new in China. As many as 90,000 "mass incidents" in China were sparked by environmental concerns last year, according to researchers at China's Nankai University. Yet unlike many factories targeted by farmers who've watched crops fail or seen relatives fall ill, the Fujia-Dalian chemical plant, which began operations in 2009, was not linked to egregious past health hazards. Rather, the fear was for the future.
In early August, a typhoon had grazed the coast and breached one of the factory's protective dykes, raising an ominous question: If a future storm ruptured its chemical storage tanks -- situated less than 100 yards from the sea -- would the entire city be wiped out in a toxic flood? The plant's main product, paraxylene (PX), is used in the manufacture of polyester; it is a toxin that causes skin and eye irritation and in large doses can cause nerve damage. To residents of Dalian, a city of 6 million perched on a peninsula in the Yellow Sea and surrounded on three sides by ocean, the specter of chemical apocalypse seemed, as one protester told me, "a matter of life and death."
Plans for the $1.5 billion factory, jointly owned by the city and the private company Fujia, were approved in 2007. Although the factory is one of Dalian's 10 largest, little was said about it in the media at the time, perhaps because of recent protests against another planned PX plant in the southeastern city of Xiamen. The Dalian plant now generates an estimated $330 million annually in tax revenue.
In a familiar pattern in China, public fears had caught fire in the weeks preceding the protest as the government failed to disclose information about the factory and blocked subsequent efforts by Chinese media to report on the real risks. Meanwhile, recent news reports on Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster provided nightmare grist for the imagination.
In early August, when the heavy winds that would become Typhoon Muifa were just gathering force in the Pacific, a CCTV film crew flew to Dalian to investigate what would happen if the storm triggered a leak in the factory's chemical storage tanks. But the reporters were stopped at the gate and then beaten, reportedly by workers ordered to do so by factory bosses. News of the incident spread online. Then on Aug. 9, a trailer for a segment about the factory aired on a popular CCTV news program. But shortly before it was to be broadcast, someone at CCTV received a request to yank the segment, and did so.
Both the beating of the reporters and the missing CCTV program generated furious speculation in Dalian, with blogs and tweets going up faster than censors could contain them: What were residents not being told? What higher hand was protecting the factory from scrutiny? Was the danger so much worse than anyone imagined?
The former party boss whose tenure coincided with the project's approval, Xia Deren, was widely despised in Dalian as corrupt and inattentive to popular will -- in marked contrast with his predecessor, the charismatic and beloved Bo Xilai, who had effectively positioned himself as the people's champion. Did some scandal involving Xia explain why the factory had landed in Dalian? In the absence of credible facts coming through the media or other official channels, dire scenarios circulated online: Contact with contaminated seawater would kill you within eight minutes; a generation of Dalian children would be born with severe deformities.