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Originally published July 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 4, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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China grass-roots movement uses technology for high-level results

Mobilized by cellphone and the blogosphere, Xiamen residents rallied against a new chemical plant, pressing authorities to table the project — a rare...

The Washington Post

XIAMEN, China — 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, 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.

Official warnings

Despite efforts by local Public Security Bureau technicians to block the cellphone campaign, thousands of people heeded the alarm. 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.

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."

Getting the word out

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.

"The Chinese government controls the traditional press, so the news circulated on the Internet and cellphones," Wen, also a blogger, said later. "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.

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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 event had happened before. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

No stopping

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.

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.

Professor Zhao, meanwhile, warned that the anti-pollution bureaucrats might consider only whether the plant endangers people living in the nearby housing developments. In a telephone conversation, she said the real problem remains whether the plant should be built near Xiamen at all.

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