Green Dragon

Dalian, China, defies the surly stock image of a polluted Chinese city. On a typical weekday, Audi sedans and electric trolley cars glide past upscale restaurants and fancy clothing boutiques in its prosperous downtown. Skyscrapers reflect a blue sky that shows no glaring signs of air pollution. During summer holidays, tourists from Beijing, which lies 500 miles to the west, flock to Dalian’s beaches to swim in the Yellow Sea. It is a place known for its affluent, well-educated, and connected citizens.

Like many Chinese cities, Dalian has a vibrant industrial sector featuring petroleum refineries, chemical plants, and factories that specialize in high-tech manufacturing. So last summer, when waves from a tropical storm destroyed a dike guarding the Fujia chemical factory not far from the downtown area, Dalian residents feared that if another storm hit the city’s coastline, floodwaters might inundate the chemical plant and trigger a toxic spill. A group of concerned residents hooked up online through the Chinese microblogging service Weibo and decided to hit the streets to raise awareness about the threats the factory posed to their health and livelihoods.

About 12,000 people showed up for the Sunday demonstrations. They marched through the main streets of the city and then gathered on the grass outside a government building to press their case. Some protesters held white sheets with spray-painted red and black letters reading “PX” – short for paraxylene, a feedstock for plastic bottles that is the main product of the Fujia plant. As riot cops patrolled the crowd, the city’s top official climbed onto a police van and promised to close the factory and move it away from downtown.

International media swarmed around the story, suggesting that the demonstration, like several before it in other Chinese cities, was another example of how the Chinese are getting increasingly vocal on environmental issues. Foreign Policy quoted a Chinese study saying environmental concerns had led to as many as 90,000 “mass incidents” the previous year. The magazine dubbed Dalian “The New Epicenter of China’s Discontent.”