Earlier this month, tens of thousands of residents in the Chinese city of Shifang (located in China’s Western Sichuan province, not far from the epicenter of the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008) hit the streets to protest against plans to construct a $1.6 billion USD copper plant that would result in heavy pollution emissions. The protests were spurred after a signing ceremony for the plant project. After three days of continuous demonstrations during which protesters reportedly smashed police cars, threw bricks, and stormed government headquarters, the local government announced that the plans for the metal plant would be canceled. 21 of the 27 reported detained protesters were released.
This is the latest protest event in the midst of a rising number of local protests occurring in the past year that have made international headlines. Many of them concern environmental pollution issues (for example, in August 2011 the residents in Dalian, Liaoning protested against a chemical plant eventually leading to the plant’s closure; in September 2011, villagers in Haining, Zhejiang province protested for 3 days against a solar panel factory which dumped toxic waste into local rivers and successfully had the factory shut down) or housing demolition and land acquisition (for example in December 2011, villagers in Wukan, Guangdong rose against officials who they accused of “stealing their land,” and after senior officials intervened, local officials were sacked, and Wukan residents were given the right to vote for their own village chiefs and officials). The BBC has a good summary of these major protest events .
In these recent protest events, online microblogging played an essential role in the dissemination of information and to a certain extent in protest mobilization. Chinese micro-blogs (or “weibo” as they are called in Chinese) are read and used by a large number of people, especially students (or the younger and more educated) who read these weibo daily, with key posts receiving millions of hits. In the Shifang protests this month, these youths helped spread details and images of the protests around the country. The term “Shifang” was the most widely searched term on the weibo this month (the government did not block the term Shifang on the blogs). Protesters wrote about the protest events, many complaining about police brutality and the use of pepper spray against protesters (reminiscent of the UC Davis protests, which many Chinese students know and have read about). Graphic photos of protesters bloodied (reportedly beaten) went viral on the weibo, but the posts were deleted soon afterwards by official administrators. However, since many pictures and video clips had made it to video sharing sites beforehand, compilations of them can still be seen, through Hong Kong media sources for example.
Many have pointed out the “post-90s generation” playing a role in protesting and political participation in China. Shifang High School students especially played a role in the recent protests, actively participating on street, as well as spurring reactions from other students online with their weibo posts. This led to the formation of a collective online identity among students who label themselves as the “post-90s generation” in their posts, and participate actively on online discussions. However, whether this participation extends beyond the online world remains to be seen. This generation of social media users greatly inspire supporters in China by disseminating protest information, but they are not necessarily the ones participating in the streets. Many community-based or village protests still remain older in terms of age composition. However, with the help of weibo (note: twitter, Facebook, and many western blogging sites are blocked in China, although there are ways to get around it) along with text messaging and emailing, people outside the immediate community (most protests are NIMBY in nature) are more likely join in the protests. This helps with protests diffusion, an aspect that Chinese protests have not been fully able to achieve successfully due to the government’s careful monitoring of all social disturbances (with the exception of the diffusion of larger political, religious, or ideological movements that resulted in harsh repression such as the Falun Gong protests in 1998 and the student movements in the following paragraph. Political scientist Patricia Thorton has written a lot on the Falun Gong protests). We have started seeing changes in these issue-based protests, as they become larger in scale, extending beyond the immediate community.
There has been a history of student movements and mobilization in China, with events such as the May 4th Movement in 1919 or the Tiananmen Student Movement in 1989, or even during the Cultural Revolution when Mao mobilized student Red Guards for political campaigns. Following the Shifang protests this month, the Chinese Community Party (CCP) ran editorials in official papers titled “We should not encourage high school students to show up at the frontlines of social conflicts”, and warned different social sectors “not to unreservedly praise the [political] participation of high school students” (Global Times, July 6. It is a subsidiary of People’s Daily, the main official paper). It also said: “Nobody should encourage high school students to plunge into different types of mass incidents, not to mention going to the frontline of political confrontation…It is immoral for adults to make use of youths to attain their political goals.” Another editorial column wrote “This is not the first time something like this has happened. Hopefully Shifang is the last time any local government would have such problems.” However, China Daily (an English-language official paper) published in its editorial column that “There is nothing wrong with residents expressing their concerns about the risks to their health and the local environment…” and “It is obviously right for the local authorities to suspend construction [of the plant] until residents’…doubts are dispelled.” The column also noted that residents’ lack of correct scientific knowledge regarding the issue may be impeding the construction of necessary projects, but praised the increase in citizens’ environmental awareness and how it was positive for the long-term development of the country (full article).
The protesters are learning. In the Shifang protests (and many other environmental protests in China), protesters adopted a “health frame,” mentioning mostly health and environmental risks and avoiding any anti-government slogans. Although they clashed with the local police and officials, they understood that if they do not directly target the central government, they would have more of a chance of sustaining the protest long enough to gain attention and get their message across. At the same time, they need to take a certain amount of aggressive actions to gain this attention. It is a fine balance, and the protesters are learning to maneuver under various structural constraints. The government is also learning. Officials know they can no longer get away with implementing projects without obtaining public opinion first. They know they can no longer ignore citizen petitions and complaints, and have become much more tolerant, especially regarding protests involving environmental grievances. Although protests that make it on to international media headlines tend to be portrayed in a more sensationalist manner, focusing on the violence and the clashes, overall, Chinese protests (they’re called “group incidents” in Chinese) happen more and more frequently, and have gradually become more routinized, as citizens and officials establish better communication and interaction in the protest process, achieving protest outcomes that both sides can agree on.