Environmentalism sometimes gets treated as a luxury, something that countries can pursue once they’ve attained a certain GDP. In China, though, galloping economic growth has created an unprecedented environmental crisis, and citizens are organizing to stop industrial pollution, even though they know it might mean fewer jobs.

In today’s Washington Post, Edward Coody reports that residents of southern Chinese fishing towns are protesting a planned chemical facility that has already been rejected by residents of another city:

 

Violent protests erupted in several southern Chinese fishing towns after residents heard that a chemical factory rejected as environmentally dangerous by the nearby city of Xiamen would be built in their area instead, witnesses and other residents said Monday.
 
The protesters, who began their uprising peacefully Thursday, clashed repeatedly with baton-wielding police Friday and Saturday in several towns near the Gulei Peninsula, about 50 miles southwest of Xiamen on the Taiwan Strait, they said. A dozen people were injured and carried away for treatment in local hospitals, and about 15 were arrested, according to demonstrators and their family members. …

Construction of the $1.4 billion factory, planned by Tenglong Aromatic PX (Xiamen), began last year on a 300-acre tract on Haicang, an island just off Xiamen. But work was halted in June after a massive cellphone message campaign by environmentalists who invoked the city’s reputation for sweet air and beautiful surroundings.

Their alarms generated several days of demonstrations in Xiamen streets that were widely reported in China and eventually caught the eye of officials in Beijing. Since then, the entire project has been suspended pending an environmental review by the central government under Premier Wen Jiabao.

The halt was hailed by protesters in Xiamen and elsewhere as a rare victory of public opinion over Communist Party bureaucrats for whom economic development normally is the top priority.

The Xiamen protests were largely organized by cellphone, and door-to-door flyering seems to have played a role in the latest ones. One resident told Coody that environmentalists raised concern through with flyers, parents started worrying about risks to their children, and real estate prices started dropping. On Thursday, 10,000 people gathered for a sit-in that blocked traffic on the main road; an official’s TV appearance to reassure the public and promote the plant’s economy-boosting potential only made people angry.

Environmental organizing in China is risky. In an October New York Times story, Joseph Kahn explained how the country’s Communist Party deals with environmental activists:

Pollution has reached epidemic proportions in China, in part because the ruling Communist Party still treats environmental advocates as bigger threats than the degradation of air, water and soil that prompts them to speak out.

Senior officials have tried to address environmental woes mostly through pulling the traditional levers of China’s authoritarian system: issuing command quotas on energy efficiency and emissions reduction; punishing corrupt officials who shield polluters; planting billions of trees across the country to hold back deserts and absorb carbon dioxide.

But they do not dare to unleash individuals who want to make China cleaner. Grass-roots environmentalists arguably do more to expose abuses than any edict emanating from Beijing. But they face a political climate that varies from lukewarm tolerance to icy suppression.

Fixing the environment is, in other words, a political problem. Central party officials say they need people to report polluters and hold local governments to account. They granted legal status to private citizens’ groups in 1994 and have allowed environmentalism to emerge as an incipient social force.

But local officials in China get ahead mainly by generating high rates of economic growth and ensuring social order. They have wide latitude to achieve those goals, including nearly complete control over the police and the courts in their domains. They have little enthusiasm for environmentalists who appeal over their heads to higher-ups in the capital.

Kahn profiles Wu Lihong, a 40-year-old former salesman who grew concerned as fish started dying off in a lake that received wastewater from 2,800 factories. He started recording and reporting pollution violations, and helped the news media draw attention to the terrible conditions. Since his activities began, Lu and his wife have both been fired, and Lu has faced arrest, interrogation, and prosecution for blackmail. After his trial, he handed his photos and documents over to a reporter and said that environmental work had become too risky for him.

Chinese officials still don’t seem to want to allow much environmental activism, but the tide may be getting too strong for them to hold it back.