Xi’an is the hearth of China, geographically but also historically. It is one ancient capital of China, starting point of the Silk Road and home to the dynasties of Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui, and Tang. Here is located the world famous archaeological site of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army. Today it is a city of 10 million people, and one among the 13 emerging megacities in China.
Like in all other 21st Century metropolis, it faces a waste crisis. In 2012, Xi’an generated almost 10.000 tons of waste per day. The city’s landfill in Jiangcungou is filling up rapidly. As a response, in 2015 the city government decided to build five waste incineration plants in Hu County, Lantian, Baqiao, Gaoling and Feng Dong New Town. There had been plans to build an incinerator since 1998, but with no success. The first one to be planned is the one in the Gaoling district, a densely populated district of Xi'an with a population of over 300.000 people. Gaoling is located in the hinterland of Guanzhong, more than 20 kilometers from the center of Xi'an. The project met fierce opposition by the residents in 2016. The main reason for the protest is the fear that waste incineration will release the carcinogen dioxins. This is because the nearby Liangcungou village already has a medical waste disposal center, and has seen a growing number of cancers. This is one of the so called cancer villages of China. So, Gaoling residents took the streets to defend their own interests and the living environment considerations.
Local media were prevented from reporting any news about it. "Voice of America" reported that people could get news about the protests only on social media. Hong Kong based "Apple Daily" got a phone call by a resident asking them to cover the news. Also, online protest fragments were quickly deleted.
Gaoling residents started the protests on Tuesday 11th of October 2016. After lasting for the all week, the protest culminated on Sunday in clashes with the police. The repression was harsh. Thousands of military police was sent to the area to disperse the rally and start arresting protesters.
Local residents reported that many protesters got arrested and many others got beaten up by the police, including even women and minors.
A resident surnamed Zhang reported to Radio Free Asia (a US sponsored broadcasting corporation operating since the 1950s) that on Sunday, an estimated 10,000 people gathered outside government offices. On Monday 17th of October, she explained that "They were beating people up yesterday and they also detained a lot of people. […] They attacked them because they thought the people were taking part in the demonstrations. […] The shops are all closed; they're not allowed to open for business. […] The street has been closed outside the government offices, and nobody is protesting there today, but there are a lot of plainclothes police officers patrolling it.”
Two days later, Global Times China reported that Zhang was arrested for supposedly alleging that 300,000 local residents blocked the government building in protest against this incinerator. The police accused her of spreading rumors on the internet, via WeChat, a one billion social media similar to whatsapp and twitter widely used in China. A statement published on the district's official website accused Zhang to have re-edited photos and content she lifted from other social media platforms and posted them on her account to strengthen his rumor. The rumors are said to have seriously disrupted public order.
Another local resident surnamed Lu declared to RFA that the streets were “full of riot police and armed police. […] I think some people got overexcited during the protests and they were dragged away in police vehicles, or carried away.”
Another resident who declined to be named said people are afraid that the incinerator could cause deaths among the local population. She declared that "The smoke that comes from those plants is toxic, and there would definitely be a lot of cancer cases. […] A lot of the people who get sick around here can't afford to get medical treatment. […] They just wait to die.”
Video of Sunday's demonstrations shot by eyewitnesses showed a march headed by motorized pedicabs with banners in support of the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, which read: "Long Live the Communist Party! Long Live Chairman Xi!". Others read: "No to the Waste Incinerator!". The slogans shouted included: “Defend Gaoling! Defend the blue sky! Pure land!”. After arrests by the police, they also shouted "release them, release them!".
The authorities strong response proved effective, at least temporarily. Most people stayed home on Monday, as the authorities appeared to pull the plug on access to social media for local residents.
Another protester surnamed Zhao declared to RFA that "There are patrols everywhere outside, so we can't go out. […] We also can't send out any tweets on social media today. Any chat group that mentions this topic will just be closed. […] There is a very tight domestic media blackout, too, a complete blackout. […] They're just not letting people get the news out.”
Right after the protests, authorities refused to comment. RFA consulted the mayor’s office, Xian municipal police department and the Gaoling district government offices. In the first case, the official declared that "We haven't received any notification on this matter, so there's no way I can update you.”
Later on, the district government promised that the project would not start unless the residents agree to start it and legal procedures are completed. The public statement declared that: "recently, demonstrators against the project blocked main roads, disturbed traffic and disrupted social order. Some people spread rumors and blocked the office building, which has violated laws.”
Local residents argued that the location of the plants was inappropriate, given it is a drinking-water priority protection area, near to three or four schools and residential neighborhoods. Therefore, the plant would affect both the people’s health and the environment. The lack of willingness to dialogue by the government triggered the protests. Xian-based rights activist Ma Xiaoming said "For 10,000 people to be mobilized in a single county shows the deep popular anger there is about this issue. […] Many, many people are concerned about environmental issues, and the government's attitude has sparked a very strong angry backlash. […] The government doesn't allow reporting in these types of situations, because the incinerator is to be located in Gaoling county right on the banks of the Wei river, where the water pollution would be extremely serious. […] The Wei river is an important tributary of the Yellow River, so we could see huge pollution and harm to the entire downstream ecosystem," he added.