A suburban district of Shanghai has been hit by a week-long protest over a rumour that a chemical plant would be moved to the region, despite local authorities’ efforts to quell public anger.

Jinshan, a district about 70 kilometres southwest of downtown Shanghai with a population of 800,000, is home to a chemical industrial zone that houses companies including the state-owned Sinopec Shanghai Petrochemical Company.

Earlier this month, the government began public consultation on a new development plan for the zone. Rumours that the government would relocate some chemical production facilities, including a paraxylene (PX) factory from Shanghai’s Gaoqiao District to Jinshan began to circulate.

PX is an inflammable chemical used to make plastic and polyester. Human exposure to the chemicals can cause damage to organs and the nervous system.

Local residents took to the streets at the beginning of last week and have refused to budge, despite authorities saying the plan had been axed.

The Jinshan local government issued a statement on its website and on social media hours after the protests began, reassuring the public that it did not intend to move facilities from Gaoqiao and that it would not be building a PX factory in the region.

shanghai protest
The Shanghai Jinshan government issued a public statements on its Weibo page calling on people to stop taking to the streets.

However, despite efforts to quell public unrest over the matter, thousands have continued to take to the streets. Distrust in the government was deepened by a blanket ban on public discussion and media reports on the protest.

Search results of terms such as “Shanghai Jinshan” or “Shanghai protest” bring up irrelevant, outdated results on Weibo. Media reports only carried the government’s statements in full. On the answers page of Baidu, the country’s largest search engine, some described the protest scene and said the government’s information lockdown was “scary.”

One message read: “Tens of thousands of people sang the national anthem in the rain. But all they get are buses of riot police. The government is ignoring our appeal, the media is silent, websites are blocked, roads are closed down by the police. (I) never would have thought that in an international city like Shanghai they could censor information so well, this is too scary.”

shanghai jinshan protest
A message on Baidu answers page describes the protest scene and the government’s information lockdown.

Rallies continued over the weekend, with increasing reports of protesters being arrested. Many tried to go to People’s Square in downtown Shanghai to continue protesting but were sent back by police, according to Hong Kong-based Stand News.

shanghai protest
Police in Shanghai arresting protesters. Photo: 教头579 via Weibo.

Meanwhile, the government sent out seven posts on its Weibo page on Sunday alone, calling on people to express their opinions in a more rational way and think about the “bigger picture” of maintaining social stability.

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.