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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 January 2008, 00:44 GMT
China's rising people power
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Xiamen

A nondescript plot of industrial land on the outskirts of the southern Chinese port city of Xiamen has become the focus of a new political movement.

A new housing project near the PX site
Housing developments are attracting the wealthy to Xiamen

The site was supposed to be the home of a new chemical plant, but protesters have forced the city government to put the project on hold.

It is a rare example of people power in a country where government officials are used to doing exactly what they want, when they want.

Ordinary people elsewhere in the country have taken note. There were similar protests over a railway project recently in Shanghai.

The Xiamen saga began when Taiwan's Xianglu Group said it wanted to build a chemical factory on the Haicang peninsula on the edge of the city.

Xianglu wants to produce the chemical paraxylene (PX), used to makes plastics, polyester and cleaning products.

Economic development is fine - but not if it damages our environment and health
Mrs Lin, a Xiamen resident

The firm already has one chemical factory on the peninsula, which is dotted with ancient villages, factories and new housing projects.

And it started work on the PX project. The proposed site was levelled and temporary site offices erected.

But in June last year the people of Xiamen decided they did not want another chemical factory right on their doorsteps.

Short-term exposure to PX can cause skin, eye and throat irritation. Longer term exposure can damage the nervous system and vital organs.

Protesters took to the streets for two days of demonstrations in the city centre, eventually forcing the local government to put the PX project on hold.

People 'can be heard'

The Xiamen protest was different to the thousands of others that take place across China because of who was involved.

Environmentalist Wu Xian
Wu Xian was arrested for his involvement in the protests

The customary groups of poor, uneducated farmers were joined by young, motivated environmentalists, such as Wu Xian.

When he heard about the PX project, he set up an online discussion group and urged Xiamen's residents to protest against the plant.

A few days before the first demonstration, police arrested the 20-year-old, who is a manager at a local karaoke bar.

He spent 15 days in jail and was forced to sign a document saying he would not take part in any further protests.

Police still regularly visit his home to copy the files on his computer, but he is undeterred and plans to start an environmental protection group.

"The protest increased people's awareness about democracy. People now know they can express their opinions and be heard," he said.

House price worries

Also joining the protest were Xiamen's rising middle classes, who are educated, wealthy and less willing to meekly accept government orders.

Many live in the growing number of luxury housing complexes that are springing up along Haicang's seafront.

A villager cuts spinach in Kunyao
Farmers and middle class people have joined together in defiance

One such compound is Future Coast. It has tennis courts, an open-air swimming pool and manicured lawns.

One resident, a mother with a seven-year-old daughter, said she had telephoned the local government to state her opposition to the PX plant.

The 34-year-old, surnamed Lin, said: "Economic development is fine - but not if it damages our environment and health."

Like many others, she moved to Xiamen because of its reputation of being a clean, beautiful city, perfect for bringing up children.

"If they go ahead with the PX plant, I think we will leave the city," she added.

Mrs Lin also has another worry - her and her neighbours have spent a lot of money to move to Future Coast and do not want their investment damaged.

Wei Xing, a consultant at nearby Haisheng Victoria housing development, said prices dropped to around 5,000 yuan ($690, 351) per sq m after news of the PX factory emerged.

Almost everyone in Xiamen now believes the plant will be moved further down the coast - something that has pushed property prices back up.

Mr Wei said prices are now double what they were just a few months ago.

'Follow our example'

Xiamen's city government is reluctant to talk about the case.

Officials say they are waiting for an environmental assessment report before making a final decision on the future of the PX plant.

A temple in Kunyao, on land prepared for the site of the plant
The company has begun clearing the site for the plant

Xianglu is also keeping quiet, although it has issued a statement saying the proposed chemical plant would not emit toxic fumes.

But whatever happens to the plant, the Xiamen incident has shown that people across China can force local governments to listen to them.

In December, Xiamen organised a public debate on the issue at which ordinary people were allowed to speak.

"People from other parts of the country will follow our example," said environmental activist Wu Xian.

"We took the first step towards a people's democracy. It's also the first step for China's democratic development."

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