Blogger 'Scared' After Appealing to Obama to Help Save China's Environment

PHOTO: Skyscrapers are obscured by heavy haze in Beijing Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013.Ng Han Guan/AP Photo
Skyscrapers are obscured by heavy haze in Beijing Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013.

"Help needed…I am scared." - Environmental blogger 'B.Y.' in protest of PetroChina chemical plant

A 20-something blogger in China has attracted regime attention for appealing to President Obama to help save China's environment.

On May 7 the blogger, who goes by the initials "B.Y.," posted an online petition on the White House website "We the People." The petition asked for support against the state-owned corporation PetroChina's plans to build a new chemical plant. Located 25 miles outside the capital city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, it would produce 10 million tons of oil and 800,000 tons of ethylene per year.

Local residents are expressing concern the future plant's location is dangerously close to a seismic fault line and that once up and running production will exacerbate air and water pollution.

The "We the People" website is a free forum that promises any petition to receive 100,000 signatures in 30 days will qualify for a White House response. As of this writing B.Y.'s petition had received just 2,100 signatures. But before solicitations for support could be widely circulated online in China, B.Y. claims a security agent asked her to delete the petition.

In an interview with the South Morning China Post, an independent newspaper published in Hong Kong, B.Y. said an agent tracked her down using "registration information on Weibo" and invited her to "tea," an euphemism for a police interrogation.

But the "We the People" site does not have a delete function. B.Y. posted another message on Weibo asking for help, writing, "The police have talked to me, I am scared." Within days, that post was deleted.

This week, searches online for "Chengdu Girl" and "Petro-chemical" elicited the following message: "According to relevant law and policy, the result you are searching for cannot be shown."

According to a report in the Associated Press, B.Y. was allowed to return home, despite being unable to remove her "We the People" petition.

The White House said it does not provide any information on those who file petitions to outside inquiries.

B.Y. was not the first to object to the plant online. In response to growing opposition this spring, PetroChina promised that it will adhere to environmental safety standards. It has also argued that in the long run the plant will improve air quality because it will produce a higher-grade gasoline for automobiles.

In a statement the company pledged: "We promise not to start production unless the plant passes environmental protection tests."

Residents are not convinced. On Thursday in Kunming online reports cited over 1,000 protesters calling for the new plant to be cancelled. Photographs show a large but peaceful crowd gathered outside government offices. [] One demonstrator is wearing a protective mask and holding a sign that read "Democracy: it is beginning!" Photographs also show a massive police presence with dozens of officers lining the streets to control the crowds.

In an unusual but not unheard of event under China's new leader Xi Jinping, Kunming Mayor Li Wenrong appeared at the protest and took questions.

According to reports online, Li said the government needed to heed public opinion and do a better job of explaining the project. He promised public hearings on the refinery and said if he did not personally start a Weibo account himself by Friday he would step down.

Both B.Y.'s experience and the protest in Kunming reflect an increasingly outspoken movement of dissent in China, whether online or in the streets. Both are in large part thanks to the internet, a soapbox shared by millions. At the same time, government action and policy to quell any opposition is equally on display. In Kunming, the mayor's action was welcomed but promised to do little more than reiterate promises made by the company.

This week in Shanghai, after hundreds of residents in the Shongjiang district held three protests again plans for a new lithium battery factory, Shanghai Guoxuan New Energy dropped plans for the project. The company is promising to return the land to local authorities. That is one victory among many ongoing battles.

Far more common are examples of government censorship in overdrive.

The writer Muron Xuecan, who has over 8 million followers, compared the current climate to that of 1975, 1966 and 1989 – all pivotal points in Chinese history.

"Chinese intellectuals are feeling more or less the same fear as one does before an approaching mountain storm," he wrote in The Guardian on Thursday. "The scariest thing of all is not being silence or being sent to prison, it is the sense of powerlessness and uncertainty about what comes next."

This month several well-known bloggers with, collectively, millions of followers have had their accounts shut down. Murong's own Weibo account was cancelled after he came to the defense of He Bing. He, a professor at the Chinese University of Political Science who had over 430,000 followers, was accused of "purposely spreading rumors" by Beijing officials. Murong wrote:

"I am a 'big V' [verified user] on Weibo, possessing over 8.5 million followers across four web portals, and 3.96 million on Sina Weibo alone. In a period of over three years, I had posted more than 1,900 Weibo messages totaling more than 200,000 words…in a split second, however, they were all brought to naught."

His followers held a virtual candlelight vigil online, but Murong has been unable to re-register with Weibo.

"I am still scared," he wrote in The Guardian, "But I will not stop struggling because I believe my silence would only embolden those who are trampling on my rights."