- Associated Press - Monday, August 15, 2011

DALIAN, China — Chinese authorities’ swift decision to close and then move an urban chemical factory after weekend street protests underscores the ruling Communist Party’s fear of alienating the increasingly outspoken middle class.

Following a march by 12,000 people in the prosperous port of Dalian on Sunday, the city’s top official, Tang Jun, promised to shut down the two-year-old Fujia plant that makes the chemical para-xylene and move it out of the downtown area.

The protest was mounted after waves from Tropical Storm Muifa last week broke a dike guarding the plant and raised fears that floodwaters could release toxic chemicals.

While no firm date for the move was given, the concession marked a rare about-face for the authoritarian government and underscored the power of the rising middle class, which enjoys relative wealth and high education levels and is fond of communicating and organizing using social media and text messaging.

“The Dalian government has learned a lesson from the previous mass incidents and may think it will help make the incident subside by dealing with the matter quickly,” Liu Shanying, a researcher at the Institute of Political Science of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Monday.

The move comes after a summer of discontent in China, with ethnic violence in Xinjiang in the northwest, protests about authorities’ rough treatment of citizens in the southern city of Guizhou and widespread criticism of the government’s handling of a high-speed rail crash that killed 40.

On Monday, more than 100 police officers, including about a dozen riot police, patrolled the public square in front of government offices in Dalian, a center for high-tech industries routinely rated one of China’s most livable cities.

The local Chinese-language media, which is state controlled, made no mention of the protests and messages about it online were removed.

There was no sign that people were gathering to protest for a second day and only light security outside the factory, which police said was in the process of shutting down.

Sunday’s protest led to some scuffles between police and demonstrators, but was mostly peaceful, in sharp contrast with other recent outbreaks of unrest, where police have been attacked and marchers arrested.

That was a reflection both of the middle-class makeup of the protesters and the relatively calm, unthreatening and apolitical nature of the protest.

Elsewhere in China, public anger has led to violent demonstrations in recent weeks about corruption and abuse of power by local officials, drawing swift police crackdowns.

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