Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Authorities' Tough Sell: Paraxylene

A new outbreak of NIMBY protests hits China's streets, and its Internet.

On the morning of March 30, hundreds of residents of Maoming, a medium-sized city in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, hit the streets to protest a proposed expansion to an existing petrochemical plant jointly run by local government authorities and Sinopec Corp, China's powerful state-owned oil company. The expansion includes plans to produce paraxylene, also known as PX, an important component in plastic bottles that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency believes may cause harmful side effects with long-term exposure. As images of protesters spread online, official efforts to seize the narrative have failed so far.

Chinese authorities exercise strict control over burgeoning "mass incidents," to use official argot referring to protests. But so-called not-in-my-backyard, or NIMBY, incidents arising from environmental concerns have become increasingly common in China in recent years along with heightened pollution concerns. Projects involving PX are a particular sore point. In June 2007, residents in the coastal city of Xiamen -- mobilized via a text-message campaign -- protested and successfully blocked the building of a plant that planned to produce paraxylene. Protests in the coastal city of Ningbo in October 2012 and northeastern city of Dalian in August 2011 also blocked paraxylene plants.

Perhaps mindful of the potency of NIMBY protests to become national news via social media -- and scuttle planned projects -- local authorities in Maoming first went on a media offensive. According to a March 31 press release from the Maoming municipal government, what began as a peaceful demonstration eventually turned into a violent confrontation between protesters and police when demonstrators began throwing rocks and plastic bottles. Though the official press release noted that there were no deaths, pictures depicting the demonstration -- as well as photos of bloodied protestors allegedly beaten by riot police, the burned-out frame of a police van, and paramilitary police marching in formation -- surfaced on Weibo, China's massive Twitter-like social media platform, before being swiftly deleted by censors. That same day, the official Weibo account of the Maoming municipal government's press office posted a notice criticizing the "grave [and] illegal activity" of protestors who had not obtained a proper permit from relevant authorities in violation of Chinese law, "seriously disturbing social order." The official notice also called upon residents to "believe the government" and only use "legal channels" to express their opinions about the PX plant.  

The government's online hardball seems to have backfired. Among more than 1,300 comments to the online notice, many criticized both the government's handling of the protest as well as its involvement in the petrochemical plant. One Weibo user asked rhetorically, "Who has ever seen an application for protest be approved?" In another popular comment, one user suggested sarcastically that in order to prove the plant is not harmful, Maoming officials should move their offices and homes next door, and "send their family members to work at the plant."  

Netizens also reacted with scorn to the Maoming government press office's seemingly conciliatory announcement, made later on March 31 -- perhaps in response to the online vitriol that greeted their initially hardball tactic -- stating that the plans were still in an initial "scientific stage," and that no action would be taken without first consulting popular opinion. In a popular riposte, one user asked, "Why is it that every time we have to use this kind of extreme method in order to get you to be transparent?"

On April 1, photos circulated suggesting that the protest spread to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. Images of peaceful demonstrators protesting next to the Guangdong Provincial Government circulated on Weibo with the caption, "People are expressing their demands in a peaceful, rational way." The spread has raised the protest's official profile; on April 1, China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, ran an article reiterating Maoming authorities' statement that "if the vast majority of residents are opposed, the Maoming government bureau will most certainly not go against the people's opinion."

While authorities have lightened criticism of protesters and acknowledged the legitimacy of grassroots concerns, authorities have nevertheless continued to insist that a PX plant would be beneficial. On March 31, the official media outlet Maoming Daily ran a front-page article called "PX in Daily Life," written by a Chinese government-sponsored chemical engineer, guaranteeing the safety of paraxylene. Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily also wrote on its official Weibo account, in a post shared over 18,000 times, that the "reason behind the public concern about PX is lack of trust in the environmental impact assessment, safety, and regulation of PX." It attached an article (excerpted in the above image) that sought to explain the industrial importance of paraxylene.

For many grassroots observers, assurances of paraxylene's safety miss the point. Zhao Chu, a military affairs expert with over 1 million Weibo followers, wrote in a post that was later deleted by censors, "Whether or not PX is toxic is a scientific question, but to build a PX-producing factory is an issue of local public policy, and the people of that region have a natural right to speak, as well as the right to participate in the final decision." Another Weibo user complained, that the protest's "main cause" was not the plant itself, but an "arrogant approach" by government that "makes nothing public or transparent."

Photo: Weibo/Free Use

Tea Leaf Nation

A Merkel, a Map, a Message to China?

Another cartographic brouhaha.

On March 28, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping at a dinner where they exchanged gifts. Merkel presented to Xi a 1735 map of China made by prolific French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville and printed by a German publishing house. According to an antique-maps website, d'Anville's map was based on earlier geographical surveys done by Jesuit missionaries in China and represented the "summation of European knowledge on China in the 18th-century." The map showed, according to its original Latin caption, the so-called "China Proper" -- that is, the Chinese heartland mostly populated by ethnic Han people, without Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, or Manchuria. The islands of Taiwan and Hainan -- the latter clearly part of modern China, the former very much disputed -- are shown with a different color border.

Historical maps are sensitive business in China. Every schoolchild in China learns that Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the Diaoyu Islands have been "inalienable parts of China since ancient times." The d'Anville map, at least visually, is a rejection of that narrative. Unsurprisingly, China's official media outlets don't seem to have appreciated Merkel's gift. The People's Daily, which has given meticulous accounts of Xi's European tour, elided any coverage of the offending map. More curiously, when news of the map's presentation reached the Chinese heartland, it had somehow morphed into a completely different one. A map published in many Chinese-language media reports about Merkel's gift-giving shows the Chinese empire at its territorial zenith, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia, and large swaths of Siberia. This larger map was the handiwork of British mapmaker John Dower, published in 1844 by Henry Teesdale & Co. in London, and was certainly not the gift from Merkel to Xi. But this mistake was not noted or explained in Chinese reports.

Both versions of the Merkel map have made appearances on Chinese social media, eliciting vastly different interpretations. Those who saw the d'Anville map seemed shocked by its limited territories. Hao Qian, a finance reporter, remarked that the map is "quite an awkward gift." Writer Xiao Zheng blasted Merkel for trying to "legitimize the Tibet and Xinjiang independence movements." Architect Liu Kun wrote, "The Germans definitely have ulterior motives." One Internet user asked, "How is this possible? Where is Tibet, Xinjiang, the Northeast? How did Xi react?"

The Dower map, on the other hand, seemed to stoke collective nostalgia for large territories and imperial power. An advertising executive enthused, "Our ancestors are badass." Another Internet user hoped Xi would feel "encouraged" by the map to "realize what a true re-emerge of China means." Some suspected that Merkel tried to send Xi a subtle reminder that Russia had helped Mongolia declare independence from China in the mid-20th century, somewhat like what Russia did in Crimea in March 2014.

To be sure, the d'Anville map does not constitute a total contradiction of the Chinese government's version of history. In 1735, the year when the Qianlong Emperor began his six-decade reign, his Qing empire's military prowess was on the ascent. Qianlong quelled a rebellion by Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang, brought the Mongol tribes under closer rule, and appointed officials to oversee affairs in Tibet such as the selection of the Dalai Lama. In other words, Qianlong established the trappings of imperial control over these peripheral territories, which allowed later governments -- the Republic of China, then the current People's Republic of China -- to claim sovereignty. Maps published by Western countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries vary in their presentations of Tibet and Xinjiang, but the Dower map is certainly not alone in showing Xinjiang and Tibet as parts of the Chinese empire.

All the cartographic brouhaha may be overblown. One Internet user refused to "overinterpret" the d'Anville map as a message about Tibet or Xinjiang. After all, "You can't use a map of the 13 colonies of the United States made in 1776 to tell Americans that Texas or California is not U.S. territory."

Photo: Fair Use