Chinese authorities in Chengdu responded to a planned protest against heavy air pollution in the city by preemptively shutting down a busy downtown square on Saturday.
Despite having a demonstration scheduled there, the normally bustling Tianfu Square was devoid of people this weekend. Restaurant staff said the main traffic arteries to the square have been blockaded by police, a detail confirmed by local police stations, South China Morning Post reports.
Meanwhile, posts that had been circulating on Weibo that called on the public to gather in Tianfu Square have since disappeared. In their place, a newly-published post dismisses previous calls to protest as “false rumors.”
On its official Weibo account, the Sichuan provincial government has charged that a viral image purporting to show smog protesters is actually from a 2012 ceremony to commemorate the Manchurian Incident. The Weibo account that first shared the image has been banned for 15 days, and local police have detained one 27-year-old man surnamed Xu for “disrupting public order.”
SCMP reports that no official explanation has been given for shutting down Tianfu Square. In response to questions about the traffic blockades, the person answering the phone for the local police station simply said, “It is a coordinated action upon the order of superiors, and it could last two or three days.”
According to the Guardian, the protests started with resident placing pollution masks on statues around the city. Security forces in riot gear were seen downtown and an unknown number of these protesters were taken away by police.
At present, the air quality in Chengdu is very poor. A yellow alert for smog was issued for the capital of Sichuan province last week. At the same time, hundreds of flights were cancelled at the city’s airport due to reduced visibility, leaving 20,000 passengers stranded on Sunday.
While different types of pollution like water and soil pollution have been increasing at alarming levels in China, urban residents are usually most aware of air pollution, especially since a nation-wide air pollution monitoring system was created a couple of years ago. In addition to that, some state institutions have been instrumental in making city residents more aware about the air they breathe.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection has recently been taking municipals authorities to task for failing to implement contingency plans as well as disciplining hundreds of officials for failing to enact pollution controls.
Although the Chengdu protest failed, other public protests against pollution have occurred throughout China. But unlike the one planned for this past Saturday, these protests are usually against the construction of facilities that the public considers to be an environmental threat.
This past summer in Guangdong, 21 people were arrested when a protest against a planned garbage incinerator turned violent. Last year, thousands of Shanghai residents took to the streets to protest against a planned PX chemical plant, eventually causing officials to backtrack on their plans.
These type of protests have also involved Chengdu. Back in 2008, Chengdu residents successfully carried out a protest against a planned $5.5 billion ethylene plant.
Last week, Chengdu was named “China’s happiest city” for the third year in a row.
By Charles Liu
[Images via Weibo]
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