Thousands protest in Shanghai suburb over chemical plant fears

SHANGHAI - Thousands of people took to the streets in a distant suburb of Shanghai on Saturday saying they feared the government would build a chemical plant, despite assurances from officials that the plan will not go ahead.

Choking smog and environmental degradation in many parts of China is angering an increasingly educated and affluent urban class. After a series of health scares and accidents there is also deepening public scepticism about the safety of industries ranging from food to energy.

There have been numerous protests in recent years focused on petrochemical plants that produce paraxylene, known as PX, a chemical used in making polyester fibre and plastics.

The latest demonstration also underscores the intensity of mistrust many Chinese feel about a government that tightly controls the media and has a poor reputation for transparency.

The government of the Shanghai district of Jinshan on Monday said that plans for a chemical industrial zone did not include, and would not include in the future, a PX facility, and called on people not to take to the streets.

Residents of Jinshan, a industrial, working class suburb of Shanghai about one hour's drive from downtown, said that the protests had already been going on for about a week.

On Saturday evening, residents marched though city streets shouting "Go people of Jinshan". Some carried signs reading "No good chemical plant".

Police walked along with the protesters, but made no effort to stop them. "This whole area is surrounded by chemical plants. I've had family members die of cancer and I bet everyone here has someone who has died of cancer," said protester Xiao Wang. "We're doing this for the younger generation. We don't want them to get sick." A lady who gave her family name as Ma added: "The level of trust that we have in the government is very low." A third protester, who gave his surname as Xu, said they wanted the government to come out and give an even clearer statement that there definitely would be no PX plant.

Reuters was unable to reach the Jinshan government for comment.

In a statement issued late on Friday, the Shanghai government said Jinshan authorities and the chemical zone were taking "vigorous steps on environmental protection and pollution control to earnestly respond to people's concerns".

Tens of thousands of "mass incidents" - the usual euphemism for protests - occur each year in China, triggered by corruption, pollution, illegal land grabs and other grievances, unnerving the stability-obsessed ruling Communist Party.

China is the world's largest producer and consumer of PX and polyester, vital for the country's textile and plastics industry.

In April, an explosion hit part of an oil storage facility that produces PX, though it only injured one person.