The People and Wisdom Changed Xiamen

(Southern Weekend)  The People and Wisdom Changed Xiamen: After Six Months, the Game with Multiple Players moves Towards Multiple Winners.  By Zhu Hongjun and Su Yongtong.  December 19, 2007.

[in translation]

PX Project site in Haicang district, Xiamen city.

It was the fourth news item of the day about the Xiamen PX project ...

On December 19, the People's Daily published the article titled : <The Xiamen PX Project: Continue construction, stop construction or relocation> in which it said: "The various experts have reached the consensus that the best choice is to relocate to the west coast of the straits."

On December 14 after the Xiamen PX District Environmental Assessment Forum was held, Xiamen city government deputy secretary-general Zhu Zilu was interviewed by Southern Weekend and he said that the ultimate fate of the PX project rests in the hands of the environmental assessment experts.  The decision will be announced "late December, and early January by the latest."

The PX project investor is Taiwan's Xianglu Group and its chairman Yu Xinchang told Southern Weekend on the same day that this is a critical juncture and a clear conclusion will be known next week.

But Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao announced on December 18 that the Xiamen PX project will be relocated to the Gulei Peninsula in Zhangzhou city in deference to public opinion, and this changed the picture.  According to the report, the members of the standing committee of the Fujian provincial party attended a special meeting held by the Fujian provincial government on the afternoon of December 15 concerning the PX project and the consensus was reached: the Xiamen PX project would be relocated and the pre-selected location is the Gulei Peninsula in Zhangpu county on the north shore of the northeastern bay of Zhangzhou city.

The report also revealed that the Xiamen city party and government has reached a preliminary accord with the PX project investor Xianglu Group.  The Xiamen city government stated that it will bear the losses suffered by the company as a result.

Southern Weekend called the relevant Xiamen department immediately.  There was a commotion on the other side, and the comment was that they were holding an emergency meeting to cope with this sudden piece of news.

On the afternoon of December 18, Fujian provincial government information office director Zhu Qing issued an urgent press release through Xinhua and emphasized that the Xiamen PX project is still under evaluation.  He reiterated that the important information about the project will only be released through government information channels.

But the interesting fact was that the Xinhua release did not refute the Ta Kung Pao story.  Even up to now, the government information channel has not made any statement about that story either.

When the public forum ended on December 14, Xiamen city vice mayor Pei Jinjia who is in charge of the PX environmental assessment project immediately raced to Fuzhou to report.

According to informed sources, relocation may have been recommended by the local government.  But it is unusual to publicize this when the environmental assessment has not yet completed.  The new location could not be decided upon without a systematic environment assessment either.

A Xiamen official said that the ultimate decision-making power is in the hands of the central government.  Both Xiamen city and the Fujian provincial governments can make recommendations, which may be subjected to change until the central government agrees.

It is certain that the premature release of the information has placed Fujian province and Xiamen city under a great deal of pressure.

As People Daily said, the various indications are that the local government is being pushed towards relocation of the project as a result of public opinion pressure.

Zhu Qing emphasized that the project is still being debated.  He also said that public opinion in Xiamen is "against restarting the project and an absolute majority of the people wanted a relocation."  This is the first time since the public participation process began that the Fujian and Xiamen government has acknowledged the "absolute majority" opinion.

In early December, a top Xiamen leader met with a group of Hong Kong/Taiwan media and said that the Haicang district will become a secondary city center for the Xiamen Special Administration Region.  He did not say a single word about Haicang being the petrochemical district.

During the half year when construction was stopped, the barriers for the PX project happening in Haicang are becoming clearer.  Apart from the public opposition, an informed source said that Haicang was unsuitable anyway.  He said that Haicang is the only PX project out of 50 around China not to be in proximity to raw material supplies and upstream refinery operations.  In early 2007, the investor had requested the addition of an oil refinery operation, but the environmental protection bureau rejected the request.

The Triumph of Public Opinion?

Since the government has not refuted the relocation news, the citizens of Xiamen are telling each other that "When the government does not dispel a rumor, it must be true."  A citizen who participated in the December 13 forum told Southern Weekend that he wanted to get friends to go out to the island and set off firecrackers to celebrate.

In March this year, Chinese Academy of Sciences academician Zhao Yufen submitted a proposal with the names and signatures of 105 National Political Consultative Conference members and thus started the Xiamen citizens' efforts to oppose the PX project.  She told Southern Weekend, "If this is true, that the credit belongs to the citizens of Xiamen."

People believe that the most direct reason why relocation is chosen is due to the public participation stage after the environmental assessment summary report was published on December 5.  At those two meetings, almost 90% of the citizens firmly opposed the PX project.

On June 1 this year, some of Xiamen's citizens took a stroll in the street to show their opposition against the PX project, and this shook up the government.

Even though the Xiamen city government had announced three days earlier that the project was put on hold and made clarifications in the local media, the citizens would not be stopped.

The public information showed that during the past six months, the Xiamen city government received almost 10,000 pieces of feedback from the citizens through various channels.  Wu Yumei is an apartment owner at "Future Coast" and she said, "We wrote a letter to Premier Wen Jiabao and we called the <Focus Interview> television program."

The rumors about "restarting" and "relocation" triggered the nerves of the citizens.  Going into November, the public was hearing that the PX project "has been approved" and construction work will resume after the Lunar New Year.

The public opinion became more determined than ever.  A forum speaker even invoked the television show <Soldiers in Surprise Attack> and she quoted the saying of the character Xu Sanduo: "Do not give up, do not abandon."

On December 5, the Xiamen city government kept its promise and published the environmental assessment summary report for the district plan for southern Haicang.  It also announced that the public participation process would begin.  This time, rational discussion became the mainstream.  During the two discussion meetings, the citizens of Xiamen held an unprecedented debate on public policies.  Xiamen University School of Law professor Zeng Huajun participated in the forum as a People's Congress delegate and he was pleased.  "The citizens are becoming more mature and they articulated their views in a rational manner."

At those two meetings, almost 90% of the citizen representatives oppose the PX project.  During this time, a certain newspaper reported that "more than half of the citizen representatives" opposed and the citizens of Xiamen insisted on a correct statement.  Ultimately, the newspaper rewrote the news story.

As the Fujian provincial leader cited by Ta Kung Pao said, "When so many of the masses were opposing, we need to reconsider carefully.  We should handle this matter from the viewpoints of scientific facts, democratic decision-making and respect for public opinions and preferences."

"The government and the citizens grew up together"

If the relocation should succeed eventually, the Xiamen city government will not doubt invoke public opinion again and establish the classical example of interaction between government and people in the history of environmental protection in China.

The open-minded behavior of the government now is very different than during the PX storm in June this year.  As Xiamen city government deputy secretary Zhu Zilu said, "the government and the citizens grew up together."

On June 1, public opinion manifested itself when the citizens took a stroll in the street in spite of all the barriers set up around them.  To defuse this crisis, the Xiamen city government intentionally opened up the channels for expressing public opinion and interacted positively with the citizens.

During the month of June, the city government opened up channels such as SMS, telephone calls, fax, email, written letters, etc to listen to citizen comments.  On June 7 and 8, 250,000 copies of the popular science booklet <How much do you now about PX?> were sent to the citizens for free.  They published public security bulletins in newspapers to warn that the small number of plotters with ulterior motives will be severely punished.  In the end, they could not really and quickly disarm the tense atmosphere.

They responded instantly to the request from the environmental protection bureau to begin an environmental assessment.  The leader team to conduct the environmental assessment of all the districts in Xiamen consisted of the city mayor, the six district top leaders and more than twenty department heads.  This was an unprecedented line-up.

But things did not go well at all.  Not a single organization was willing to undertake the environmental assessment in Xiamen.  In July, they finally got the Chinese Academy of Environmental Sciences to undertake the project.  "We spent a long time to convince them.  We firmly stated that the government does not have a pre-established position.  We only want it to be open and fair."  Zhu Zilu said.  The environmental protection bureau ultimately did not participate.

In early July, another problem arose.  A deputy director from the Xiamen Ministry of Industry and Commerce was manning the mayor's telephone hotline and he said that Xiamen intends to implement the <Xiamen City regulations for handling harmful and deleterious information on the Internet> whereby anonymous posting on the Internet would be banned.  This caused a storm once the story got out.

A Xiamen official said that "such a proposal did exist internally."  But faced with the public opinion wave, there was no follow-up.  The deputy director was suspended from his job.

On December 5, the Xiamen city government officially published the summary report of the environment assessment.  It also began the public participation process.  The various detailed arrangement convinced the citizens that there was "no hidden government black box operation."  These included the live television broadcast of the random selection of the applicants who would be allowed to speak, the invitation to the critics to be live observers during the selection, the complete opening of the forum to media coverage and the freedom of people to speak out at the BBS's and blogs.

The only interlude was when the official Xiamen city government web page for casting votes was removed midway through the voting.  This caused some puzzlement.  The publicity department officials explained that people could not be prevented from voting more than once because of the technical implementation of the page.  As such, this violates the scientific principle of fairness.

Even the highly critical commentator Lian Yue had to admit that no matter what the outcome of the PX project was, the detailed arrangements around the environmental assessment should win praises for the public efforts made by the government.

As for the environmental assessment report that someone thought was dictated by the government, it did not give a clear opinion as to whether southern Haicang should be either a petrochemical district or a secondary center for Xiamen.  Nevertheless, the objectivity and fairness of the report were acknowledged by the majority of the citizens.

Following the cautiousness of the government with respect to news releases, Xiamen Daily and Xiamen Evening News did not mention the proportion of the opposition in the reports on the public meetings.  This caused people to think that the government was deliberately omitting the information.

A Xiamen city government official told Southern Weekend that the decision on the PX project was not a simple trade-off between GDP and the environment, since it involves economics, politics and many other factors.  The ultimate decision lies with the central government.  "The local government should not readily indicate any leanings."

He said that these complex considerations include (1) there are many PX projects around China and if Xiamen should mishandle this, a chain reaction could occur in other places and the national PX strategy would be impacted; (2) the project itself was legally approved and this affects the confidence of Taiwan businesses to invest on the mainland as well as casting aspersion on the authority of the reviewing department; (3) Xiamen is on the front line with Taiwan, and so this must not damage the grand strategies with respect to trade and unification with Taiwan.

If the central government ultimately approves the relocation, the cooperation between Xiamen and Zhangzhou may be another key issue.  Should Xiamen withdraw in total?  Should the cities become partners and split the revenue?  This is unknown at this time.

The People Without Voices

The PX storm began when 105 National Political Consultative Committee members signed a joint petition.  The citizens were impressed by the conscience of the academicians and experts even as they were disappointed by the voicelessness of the local Xiamen People's Congress and Political Consultative Committee members.

In June, a member of the Xiamen Political Consultative Committee told Southern Weekend that even though they knew about the PX project, the two congresses in Xiamen did not offer any proposals at the request of the relevant persons.

During the two days of the public forum, more local People's Congress and Political Consultative Committee members made their voices heard.  Xiamen University law professor Zeng Huajun was the first People's Congress representative to raise his hand to speak.  "I oppose the construction of this project in Haicang."  He was greeted by a warm round of applause.

Huli district Political Consultative Conference member Zheng Chengzhong had two separate admission tickets, one as a citizen and the other as a Political Consultative Conference member.  He was the luckiest Xiamen citizen.  Therefore he had two chances to express his firm opposition.

The civilian environmental protection group "Green Cross" also began to take action.  From December 11 to 13 right before the forum, Green Cross held three consultative meetings by using the Internet to ask the selected forum participants to attend.  The purpose was to discuss the key points and division of labor.

During early June, Green Cross was criticized by netizens for the "three no's" -- we do not support, we do not oppose and we do not join any organization.

The person in charge of Green Cross is Ma Tiannan and he was saddened by the rough treatment.  He said, "We are a non-government organization.  We are not a no-government organization."

He said that Green Cross is weak and it has no expertise in making professional judgments.  What Green Cross can do is to provide a platform to push the public to exercise their right to participate.  "How come nobody asked why Green Peace is doing nothing?"

The Xianglu Group

All the arrows were aimed at the PX project investor, Taiwan's Xianglu Group.

At noon on December 13, the company authorized Southern Weekend to publish an open letter to the citizens of Xiamen.  The tone of the letter was moderate.  Apart from paying tribute to the environment assessment department, the government and the citizens, the company insisted that the project was environmentally sound, safe, reliable and legal.

When the Tao Kung Pao report appeared, Southern Weekend immediately contacted Xianglu Group chairman Yu Xinchang.  He did not seemed surprised, but he did not want to say anything more.  He said, "A careless word may change everything."

According to an informed source, the government froze the company assets in June.  This created a severe problem with the capital flow of the Xianglu Group.  The company senior officials had appealed numerous times to the Xiamen city government, including bursting out in tears.

"Xianglu cannot stand up to the continued postponement of the project.  This may be one of the reasons why they changed their minds and agreed to relocate."  The informed source said.

A Xiamen city government official told Southern Weekend: "If the project is relocated, the government will have to deal with the issue of the company asking for compensation.  After all, a project with all the required approvals was stopped by administrative fiat."  He said that this will be a difficult process.

From June to now, Xianglu Group has tried to repair its demonized image.  They opened a company blog at to show its environment protection accomplishments and the charity work in the Haicang district, including visiting seniors and running student tourists.  They did the water drinking act many times and cited many spectators as saying, "The filtered water here is even sweeter than mineral water."  So what is so scary about such a factory?

But the company also used strong-arm tactics.  Southern Weekend learned that around October, the company sued Xiamen University professors Zhao Yufen and Yuan Dongxing in a Beijing court for damaging its reputation.  The case has been transferred to the Xiamen Middle Court.

Southern Weekend learned from a source at the Xiamen Middle Court that "the case was supposed to be transferred here, but we have not seen the records yet."  The professors have confirmed that they have been sued and Xiamen University is handling the matter.

Does the countermove by Xianglu Group represent a genuine effort to lobby for the restart of the project, or an attempt to increase its compensation upon relocation?  The company has not made a definitive response.

Before the environmental assessment summary report was released by the Chinese Academy of Environmental Sciences on December 5, Xianglu was found not to have solved the waste gas pollution problem from the petrochemical PTA Stage I project since 2002.  There were numerous complaints and this constituted a bad history.  Very quickly, its carefully cultivated friendly image was destroyed and it stood on the opposite side of the citizens once again.

Although the open letters to the citizens rebutted the contents of the environmental assessment report (e.g. the acid smell does not imply that the emissions were beyond the standards), the people clearly did not believe it.

The Taiwan Chamber of Commerce in Xiamen has been calm about this affair.  Southern Weekend spoke to a member of the organization: "The association has never brought up this affair."  This Taiwan businessman said that the Xianglu Group boss has a unique position among Taiwan business people and he has his own channels.  As such, he did not need the backing of the association.

The Real Estate Developers

When the news came out on December 16, the individual real estate developers in the Haicang district stopped selling their apartments.  A senior manager said, "We want to wait for the final decision of the project and then we will re-design our sales strategies."

At the present, housing prices have soared up to 20,000 to 30,000 yuan per square meter on Xiamen Island itself.  But the prices at the Haicang district had fallen instead.  "Over the past two months, the number of transactions fell to zero."  A senior manager of Haicang's largest real estate developer Haitou Group told Southern Weekend.

The developers are trying to save themselves.  After June, the local real estate developers association held a meeting to discuss the possibility of business collapse.  So the businesses jointly agreed to raise their prices by 500 yuan per square meter in order to create the impression that sales prices have stopped falling.

During the June PX storm, individual real estate developers were accused of mobilizing people behind the scene.  At the time, Yang Jingcheng (who was the chairman of the Xiamen Light Industries Group) and three-time Xiamen city People's Congress delegate) openly accused certain criminal real estate developers: "For their own interest, they inflamed and organized good citizens who don't know the truth to join an illegal assembly/march.  Worse yet, they even offered money to hire outsiders to join the illegal assembly/march.  Each person received 100 yuan each time."  This assertion caused a stir back then.  Yang is still sticking to that assertion even today.

A senior manager at a real estate developer said that after the June incident, the relevant Xiamen department investigated the logs of the real estate developers.  "I heard that two of them were investigated," but nothing has ever been publicly revealed.

The Haitou Group is a state enterprise in Haicang district.  A senior manager there complained, "If the PX project proceeds, our interests would be hurt.  Don't we have the right to speak too?"

Gulei Peninsula

Gulei Peninsula is rumored to be the new site, but it is not a dark horse that came out of nowhere.  According to a Zhangpu county trade and economic bureau worker, they have been working hard and anticipating that the project would come.

In early May, when the story about the PX poison in Xiamen was hot, the Taiwan Xianglu Group had sent people over to Gulei Peninsula to inspect the site.

On the afternoon of August 22, Zhangzhou city mayor Li Jianguo held a special city government meeting about the development of Gulei Peninsula and a consensus was reached: They should follow up on the Xianglu project and get the contract signed as quickly as possible.

During the six months when the PX project was put on hold, Gulei Peninsula was privately regarded by Xiamen city and Haicang departments as the most suitable choice.

Gulei Peninsula is located between Xiamen and Shantou, at about more than 100 kilometers from either of those special administrative regions.  There is a deep shoreline that 30,000 ton ships can dock.  Within the economic zone of the peninsula, there are 20 square kilometers of flat land, most of which are state salt fields and collective farmland.  "The key is that there is no issue with relocating people and the cost of land acquisition is low.  The land is sparsely inhabited, so that there would not be a recurrence of public opposition as was the case of the Xiamen PX project."  A Xiamen government official said.

The Gulei Peninsula officials are eagerly waiting.  The Zhangpu External Economic and Trade Bureau director Hong Guoji told Southern Weekend on December 18 that he has not received any notice, but he welcomes the coming of the PX project.  He emphasized that the Gulei Peninsula is at a safe distance away from residential areas.

If all goes well, the PX project will be the first 10 billion yuan project for Zhanghou.

The Gulei Harbor Economic Development Committee member Li Shaoping is in charge of attracting businesses to come.  He told Southern Weekend that the infrastructure (roads, water, electricity) has basically been completed for Gulei Peninsula.  "We are patiently waiting for the decision to come."

Concerning the possible environmental pollution caused by the PX project, Hong Guojie is confident, "The gas canisters at our homes are dangerous too.  But if we manage things well, no harm will come out of it.  It is the same kind of reasoning."

But an environmental assessment expert pointed out the relocation is a complex problem that requires new environment assessments at this new site.  Therefore, it is premature to say that the site has been chosen.

Related LinkBehind The Scenes in Xiamen; PXit Strategy  Jonathan Ansfield, CDT