For China's green watchdogs, the recent past too often has meant sacrificing the environment for the sake of economic growth and jobs. But a recent high-profile public protest over a plastics raw material plant in the coastal city of Xiamen suggests that could be changing.
The proposed factory, making the PET precursor chemical paraxylene, would have been built within 10 miles of the city center.
But residents and some political leaders in the country protested the location, and the government of the city in Fujian Province announced May 30 it was putting the project on hold while it conducted another environmental review.
According to stories in the official China Daily newspaper, local residents engaged in a high-tech version of people power, besieging city offices with nearly 1 million mobile phone text messages, many in the last month, sometimes comparing the project to an ``atomic bomb.''
And more than 100 members of China's top political advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, expressed disapproval of the project during the body's annual parliamentary session in March.
Western and Hong Kong media said several hundred to several thousand people took to the streets in Xiamen, a city of 1.5 million, on June 1 to protest, two days after city officials ordered the halt pending further environmental reviews.
The environment is obviously a serious challenge in China. About 30 percent of the country's rivers are not clean enough even for industrial or agricultural use, and about 300 million Chinese people don't have access to clean drinking water, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Public ire is rising. Chinese officials have said they had 50,000 environment-related protests in 2005, a 30 percent increase from the previous year, involving industries ranging from petrochemicals, sewage treatment to coal-burning power plants.
Some of those have involved plastics plants. A South Korean-invested plastics factory, also in Fujian Province, for example, got caught up in a riot by 200 or so villagers last year against several factories and a sewage plant in the town of Quanzhou.
The Xiamen incident may have attracted more attention than most, though, with residents using their mobile phones and the Internet to get their messages across.
One member of the CPPCC told Chinese papers the incident follows a familiar pattern, with local government officials supporting a project mainly because it would have been a huge windfall to the city coffers.
That CPPCC official, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, argued a paraxylene plant should be at least 60 miles from an urban area.
For the moment, it's not clear how the events in Xiamen will unfold. Will the project resume once public attention goes away, will it be dropped entirely, or will it simply be moved to a rural area, shifted away from those who make the most noise?
That noise seems likely to grow. The country's environmental regulators last year released a study that showed while the country had economic growth of 10 percent in 2004, if you took into account the costs from its environmental damage, real gross domestic product growth was closer to 7 percent.
That's a sizable difference, and makes you wonder how long China can sustain 10 percent a year growth if it's doing that much damage to its environment. It also points out the very real challenges China faces, trying to continue its impressive record of lifting people from poverty and improving lives, without destroying the environment.
Steve Toloken is a Plastics News correspondent based in Hong Kong.