Protests over incinerator rattle officials in Chinese city of Wuhan

A child walks past a pile of garbage in Dapu Village in Hunan, China.
A child walks past a pile of garbage in Dapu Village in Hunan, China.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WUHAN, China (NYTIMES) - Days of turbulent street protests against an incinerator project in Wuhan, south-central China's largest city, have prompted the local government to assure residents it has no plans to build the facility any time soon.

But the authorities have also deployed large numbers of riot police in Wuhan, and are warning of harsh measures if the demonstrations, which have brought thousands of people into the city's streets, continue.

The dispute here highlights how more countries are having trouble coping with the vast quantities of trash produced by an increasingly affluent global population. Coming up with a solution is particularly tough in a country like China, where years of censorship and propaganda have left many people deeply distrustful of government assurances of the safety of incinerators.

At the same time, many in China resent a common alternative: garbage landfills. That is particularly true in cities like Wuhan that have expanded to envelop landfills previously in fairly rural areas.

Even as they discourage further protests, local authorities in Wuhan have tried to assure residents that their voices are being heard. Many protests across China have centred on local environmental issues like the incinerator project, and the ruling Communist Party is extremely wary of letting them build into a larger movement.

"The people's government of the district fully guarantees the participation rights and supervision rights of the masses," read a statement from the Xinzhou district in eastern Wuhan, the site of the proposed incinerator.

But the statement also warned: "Public security organisations will resolutely crack down on illegal criminal acts such as malicious incitement and provocation."

Local officials acknowledge being caught off guard by the public backlash. Planning for the incinerator started years ago, when the area was mostly rural, and was not updated as a construction boom took place nearby, including at least two schools.

Residents of Wuhan, a city of about 10 million people, say police have been detaining and taking away some protesters in vans, apparently targeting people who had urged others online to join the demonstrations.

 
 

The government forced businesses to close at 6 p.m. across a fairly wide area before a protest on Thursday evening, residents said. That left police with a free hand to deal with protesters, who could not flee into shops during sometimes violent confrontations.

On Friday evening, a street market several blocks away had been allowed to reopen. But steel shutters were down at storefronts at the hub of protests, a gritty neighbourhood of older concrete walk-up buildings.

Hundreds of people milled quietly around on sidewalks on either side of an avenue, sullenly eyeing more than a dozen large black police vans and buses with tinted windows. The show of force and the earlier detentions intimidated possible protesters to avoid further confrontations, residents said.

Many plainclothesmen were evident. Numerous young men in short haircuts stood at each street corner after sunset and watched the crowd while wearing identical outfits: black trousers, black T-shirts and bright red vests incongruously labelled "Civilised Construction Tour Guide".

There has been no sign that the huge street protests in Hong Kong over the past month inspired the demonstrations in Wuhan, which began on June 28. China's censors have worked hard to prevent information about the Hong Kong protests from spreading broadly, although word of them has been seeping into the mainland.

And in the lower-income neighbourhood in eastern Wuhan where the government wants to build an incinerator at a landfill, the Hong Kong protests seem to have little or no appeal. Residents seem aware of the danger of being seen by the authorities as having drawn any inspiration at all from Hong Kong.

"We have nothing to do with Hong Kong whatsoever," said a posting on one of the online chat groups that have been used to coordinate protests.

Experts have been sceptical that the demonstrations in Hong Kong, over a local Bill that would allow extradition to the mainland, would encourage protests in China even if they were widely reported. There is limited sympathy in mainland China for Hong Kong, which many mainland Chinese regard as a prosperous place that already receives favourable treatment from Beijing.

Even before the Wuhan protests began, residents had been complaining online about the smell from a large landfill at the site of the proposed incinerator. The local government tried to reassure them by announcing that it was putting thicker plastic film over the waste and installing an air purification system.

Street protests began last Friday, set off by noisy construction work near the landfill that apparently led some residents to believe that work on the incinerator had begun. But the Xinzhou district government said the noise was from the demolition of a nearby rail line.

It said that while planning had been under way for an incinerator in the area, it would not proceed until environmental impact assessments had been carried out, and that the public's views on the project would be taken into account. That did not mollify protesters, who feared that the consultation process would still end in construction of the incinerator.

Periodic protests against incinerators have been breaking out for a decade in China. But the ones in Wuhan appear to have been larger than most, although a protest against an incinerator in Hangzhou in 2014 was more violent, with at least 10 demonstrators and 29 police officers injured.

Older incinerators in China have been a source of emissions that can damage the body's nervous system. Such pollutants, particularly long-lasting substances like dioxin and mercury, are not only dangerous in China but can also float on air currents across the Pacific, reaching as far as the United States, according to atmospheric research based on satellite observations.

Better incinerator technology that eliminates almost all emissions, already used widely in Europe, is now available in China, but it is many times more expensive to install. Chinese officials have tried hard to persuade the public that new incinerators are being built with such improved technology.

The new incinerators also use the heat from burning garbage to generate electricity. That helps reduce slightly the need to burn coal, which is still China's dominant fuel source, although renewable energy is expanding quickly.

In a country with pervasive censorship and intensive propaganda, many people deeply distrust the government's safety assurances on environmental issues.