Residents in southern China shout 'Protest! Protest!' against plans for refinery in Kunming

KUNMING, China – More than 2,000 people in southern China unfurled banners and shouted, “Protest! Protest!” in a demonstration Thursday against plans for a petroleum refinery, in one of the country’s biggest environmental protests this year.

The gathering in downtown Kunming — the second one in the city this month — was largely peaceful, though there were minor scuffles with police. Witnesses said at least two people were briefly detained.

Demonstrators raised small paper flags over their heads in a rhythmic chopping motion as they protested the planned refinery by powerful state company PetroChina Co. Government officials in Kunming said this week that the project will meet environment standards and is crucial for the local economy, but protesters are worried about the air and water pollution that will result.

“We don’t need speedy development. What we need is a healthy and peaceful country,” Kunming resident Liu Yuncheng said. “I still haven’t given birth to a baby. I want to be pregnant and I want a healthy baby.”

Members of China’s public, especially among the rising middle class, have become increasingly outspoken against environmentally risky factories, in reaction to a decade of development-at-all-costs policies that have despoiled the country’s air and waterways.

However, they have virtually no say on industrial projects, and have instead turned to organizing protests. Several of those turned violent last year, in some cases prompting local governments to scrap plans for factories.

The refinery planned near Kunming is expected to produce up to 10 million tons of refined oil annually. It is connected to operations of the upcoming Myanmar-China pipeline, which originally was due to start pumping oil and gas at the end of this month after eight years of planning and construction.

China has invested heavily for access to resources from neighbouring Myanmar and to establish a new, shorter route for the procurement of oil and gas, as an alternative to shipping routes.

Opposition to the pipeline has been strong on both sides of the border. Myanmar officials recently said its operations would be delayed.

In response to a May 4 protest by Kunming residents, local governments and PetroChina held a series of public meetings and promised that operations at the 20 billion yuan ($3 billion) refinery would be environmentally clean. But officials said the project’s environmental evaluation report remains confidential, aggravating a public already upset with a lack of information about the project.

Residents remain skeptical about any government claim that the project will be safe.

“We cherish blue skies and white clouds, as well as good air. If you want to build a refinery with 10 million tons of capacity here in the place where we live, we resolutely oppose it,” said a Kunming resident who identified herself only by her surname, Liu. “We want a good life. We women want to be beautiful.”

Kunming Mayor Li Wenrong was quoted in state media last week as saying the public’s opinion would be taken into account in a democratic way in the approval process for another upcoming project — plans to build factory that would produce p-xylene, a toxic chemical used in the production of polyester and other materials.

At the same time, however, Chinese microbloggers say their posts questioning the refinery have been scrubbed by censors. Employees at state-owned companies have been asked to promise that they and their family members will not participate in protests and will not discuss the project in public venues or on social media.

Earlier this month, authorities thwarted a planned protest against a petrochemical plant in the city of Chengdu by flooding the streets with police in a supposed earthquake drill, reflecting the balancing act of Chinese officials as they seek to promote economic growth while maintaining social stability.