An enlightened hue to protests in China

For years, residents of small towns and villages in rural China have protested against polluting factories that threatened their livelihoods. Few have met with success, with most local governments turning a deaf ear to complaints against projects they are often invested in.

However, on Sunday, when 12,000 residents took to the streets of the affluent port city of Dalian to protest against a petrochemical plant, they achieved stunning results.

Within hours, the city's top Communist Party official appeared in front of slogan-raising students and white-collar workers to “appease” the crowd, the official Xinhua news agency reported — a response that both state media and environmental groups have described as unprecedented in China's recent history.

By the end of the day, the official had even promised to close down the plant, which is less than 30 km from the city and manufactures paraxylene (PX), a chemical used in fabric production and is carcinogenic.

“This was a very, very rare case where the government made a very rapid response to public opinion,” Ma Tianjie, who leads Greenpeace China's campaigns against toxics, told The Hindu.

“We have seen a similar official response before, in Xiamen [in 2007, against another PX plant]. But it was only after protests had ended, after a lot of internal considerations, and a few weeks, or even months, of waiting.”

The Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper, too, described the Dalian protest as an exception, in a country where authorities have little tolerance for “mass incidents” and usually deploy local police to disperse protests before they even begin.

“In recent years, some local governments would hesitate in the face of public incidents. In this regard, Dalian is an exception,” said the newspaper.

Environmental groups and scholars said the markedly different official response was, in part, driven by the unusual nature of Monday's protesters. They were mostly young, educated, urban middle-class Chinese who had mobilised through social networks. “Dalian has a lot of wealthy, upper-class people and their influence over the government is far greater than the ordinary people. It's no surprise that the project was cancelled amid public anger,” Yang Yang, a political scientist at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, told the Associated Press.

Much of the media coverage on Sunday drew attention to the social background of the protesters, and was also largely supportive of the protests, not often seen in the “mass incidents” that take place in China's hinterland.

This trend was also evident in the coverage of last week's bullet train collision in Wenzhou, which left at least 40 people dead and triggered widespread middle-class anger, largely fuelled online, at public safety standards.

“We are seeing more and more cases of middle-class urban residents saying no to polluting projects, and getting involved in such issues,” said Mr. Ma of Greenpeace. “In urban areas, people are increasingly more aware. With online tools like microblogs, it is also becoming easier to communicate issues to the public.”

Following the Wenzhou accident, the Communist Party of China issued a circular calling on local government departments and central agencies to be more transparent, a move seen as an attempt to address rising expectations of more transparent governance from the middle-class.

Caixin a widely-read liberal magazine, said in an editorial this week that the Internet's “information revolution” was increasingly “shaping the course of public affairs”.

“Civil rights awareness has grown… and a traditional subject-ruler mindset is giving way to civic awareness,” it said, adding that “one of China's immediate needs is to establish channels for public participation in government and give the media more freedom”.

The response to Sunday's protest in the Communist Party's official Global Times, which represents more conservative views in the party, suggested such a move remained far from likely.

The Dalian incident, it cautioned, should not be seen “as a victory of a protest”. It warned against people taking to the streets to have their voices heard, saying this was not “the real attitude of Chinese society”.

Urban, educated youth leading protests

Media coverage supportive of protests

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 11:15:42 AM |

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