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Protests mark rising environment awareness in China
by Staff Writers
Haining, China (AFP) Sept 20, 2011

A major anti-pollution protest has forced the Chinese government to take swift action for the second time in as many months, spurred by a rising environment movement that is spreading online.

More than 500 residents living near a plant making solar panels protested for three days last week in the eastern city of Haining, forcing authorities to temporarily shut the factory, which belongs to the US-listed Jinko Solar.

The incident came just over a month after authorities in the northeastern city of Dalian agreed to relocate a chemical plant following similar protests, underscoring official concern over mounting public anger about pollution.

"Citizens, particularly a rising Chinese middle class, have become more aware about how deep the impact of environmental issues is to their health," said Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"They are no longer willing to take it passively."

Protests against pollution are not new to China, as breakneck economic growth over the past three decades has caused severe degradation of air, land and water quality.

But the growth of social networking, in particular Twitter-like "weibo" or microblogs, has helped spread the word about environmental issues and mobilise protests against perceived polluters.

Wong Yiu-chung, a politics professor at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said the shutdown of plants in Haining and Dalian was directly linked to the rising power of the Internet.

"The government moved quickly to order a halt in production on fears news of the protest would further spread on weibo, given the control on traditional news outlets," he told AFP.

Zhang Zhi'an, a communications professor at Zhongshan University in the southern province of Guangdong, agreed, saying microblogs had helped give a voice to people with grievances.

"It has played an important role in gathering public opinion, which has helped some vulnerable groups," he said.

China, which has the world's largest online population with nearly 500 million users, constantly tries to exert control over the Internet by blocking content it deems politically sensitive as part of a vast censorship system.

But the rising popularity of weibos has posed a major challenge to the censors.

A blogger living near the site of a deadly high-speed train crash in Zhejiang province in July is widely believed to have broken news of the accident, while millions of others kept up criticism in the days that followed.

Bloggers were also thought to have orchestrated the largely peaceful, 12,000-strong protest in Dalian, although posts and photographs were swiftly removed from the Internet after the demonstration.

Residents near the Jinko Solar plant, meanwhile, said they had voiced concerns about pollution for half a year, to no avail.

One elderly man who has lived in the area his whole life told AFP the air smelled bad and locals had no idea whether it was harmful to their health.

The issue finally came to a head with the deaths of a large number of fish in a nearby river and an Internet posting blaming the factory for polluting the area, which residents say has since been deleted.

Protesters broke into the factory in Zhejiang, ransacking offices and overturning vehicles before being forced back by police in a three-day protest from last Thursday.

News of the incident started emerging on blogs and weibo, before being reported by the official Xinhua news agency on Sunday -- a day before authorities decided to temporarily shut the plant.

But local residents said this success was bitter-sweet, claiming the government had employed hard tactics to stop the mass protest, as well as trying to appease locals with pledges to stop pollution.

They say riot police used force to disperse the protestors, who overturned cars and threw rocks.

"They beat them (the protestors) like dogs," one young man, who lives just outside the walls of the Jinko plant, told AFP.

Haining's city government said Tuesday 31 people had been detained over the protests and another 100 were to be given "legal re-education", which normally involves giving minor offenders classes about the nation's legal system.

It had earlier put that number at 21, including one man held for spreading "rumours" online about people living near the plant allegedly suffering from disease, highlighting government concern over the power of the new medium.

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Residents want China plant moved over pollution
Haining, China (AFP) Sept 20, 2011 - Residents have called for authorities to move a polluting solar panel factory in eastern China, locals and media said Tuesday as anger simmered after days of violent environmental protests.

Authorities shut down the plant -- found to be emitting excessive levels of potentially toxic fluoride -- Monday after hundreds protested in Zhejiang province's Haining city, but locals are still concerned about their health.

"The plant should be knocked down. That's the only way to solve the problem," a young man living near the factory, who declined to be named, told AFP.

Zhou Jiuguan, who grew up in the area, also called for the plant to be relocated. "But with the money involved, it's impossible," he said.

State media reported that the 500 protesters who stormed the factory -- operated by the US-listed company Jinko Solar -- last week were demanding an explanation for the deaths of large numbers of fish in a nearby river.

On Monday, Haining's city government announced the temporary shut-down of the factory after tests showed it was emitting excessive levels of fluoride, which can be toxic in high doses.

It added Tuesday that a total of 31 people had been detained over the protests and another 100 were to be given "legal re-education", which normally involves giving minor offenders classes about the nation's legal system.

It had earlier put that number at 21, including one man held for spreading "rumours" online about people living near the plant allegedly suffering from disease.

The incident came just one month after authorities in the northeastern port city of Dalian agreed to relocate a chemical plant following similar protests, underscoring official concern over mounting public anger about pollution.

On Tuesday, the area around the plant in Haining appeared quiet, bar a single police road block leading up to the factory.

"Everything is toxic with regards to producing (solar) cells. It stinks whenever I pass by," the Oriental Morning Post cited a resident surnamed Wang as saying, adding that many locals were hoping the plant would be moved.

A spokeswoman for Jinko Solar -- quoting chief financial officer Zhang Longgen -- told AFP Tuesday that the firm "is not in the position to make the decision" on whether the factory should be relocated, without elaborating.

She insisted that facilities at the plant met environmental standards.

Jinko apologised on Monday for what it said had been a leak. Waste containing fluoride had been stored outside the factory, it said, but polluted a nearby river after heavy rains in late August.

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Humanity falls deeper into ecological debt: study
Paris (AFP) Sept 20, 2011
Humankind will slip next week into ecological debt, having gobbled up in less then nine months more natural resources than the planet can replenish in a year, researchers said Tuesday. The most dominant species in Earth's history, in other words, is living beyond the planet's threshold of sustainability, trashing the house it lives in. At its current pace of consumption humankind will ne ... read more

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