Last week, the word “Shifang” (which the government did not block online) was the most widely searched term on China’s micro-blogs.
Tens of thousands of residents in a Chinese city took to the streets last week to protest, forcing the government to scrap plans to build a copper plant. The incident is the latest in a rising number of localized protests as expression of public anger aimed at over-ambitious or corrupt officials in China over-boils.
Thousands of anti-riot police were deployed to Shifang city, located in China’s Western Sichuan province last week during the protests which turned violent as residents smashed police cars and stormed the government headquarters. Two protestors have since been reported to have died, according to NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
In a highly unusual compromise, the local government announced that plans for the metals plant, which locals said would result in heavily polluting factory emissions, would be stopped. Twenty-one of 27 people detained during the protests have been released.
A number of high-profile protests have erupted in the last few years. In December 2011, the village Wukan made international headlines after villagers rose against corrupt local officials they claimed were stealing their land. Following a stand-off, senior government officials intervened. Local officials were sacked and – in a surprising twist – Wukan residents were given the right to vote for their own village chief and officials.
In August 2011, around 12,000 residents protested against a chemicals plant in the northeastern city Dalian, leading to the plant’s closure. In September of the same year, villagers in Haining, located in Zhejiang province, protested for three days against a solar panel factory which had dumped toxic waste into a local river killing fish. The factory has since been closed.
“Official reports do chart a rising number of protests over the past five years or so,” Michael DeGolyer, professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, tells IPS. “Social volatility (the potential for sudden outbreaks of mass behaviors demanding structural change) is rising due to a number of factors. Then, all it takes is a triggering event or events to unleash it.”
The rapid rise of social media has played a significant role in growing civic awareness among the populace. China’s micro-blogs have helped inspire large gatherings of protestors. Users, many who were born in the post-1990s and are well-educated, have quickly spread details and images of protests around the country, forcing the hand of the government.
“I see Chinese people’s civic consciousness budding,” says Li Yonglin, 19, an entrepreneur who travelled to Shifang from Mianyang city in Sichuan province to take part in the protests. “Several years ago when a city government decided to implement an environmentally-unfriendly project, citizens would probably bear with it. Shifang people’s fight is just the beginning. Resentment among people has been suppressed for too long.”
Li claims to have witnessed police using batons to break up gatherings. When matters escalated they used tear gas and stun grenades. Li has repeatedly tried to post reports online of what he witnessed. But they have all been deleted.
Last week, the word “Shifang” (which the government did not block online) was the most widely searched term on China’s micro-blogs. Protestors relayed details of incidents as they happened, including complaints of police brutality and the liberal use of pepper spray against protestors. Graphic photographs of protestors with blood pouring down their faces and chests – reportedly after been beaten by government forces – went viral on the micro-blog Sina Weibo. The posts have since been deleted.
“Talking about the Shifang incident, it is the government’s fault,” wrote a Weibo user named ‘Skaterboy’. “If they communicated right, would we have gone this far? The people are reasonable, the police are not bullies, it is the government who has made the wrong moves.”
Cultural commentators have waded in to fan the fires. Han Han, the millionaire race-car driving author and blogger, wrote a widely-circulated blog post supporting residents of Shifang and condemning the brute force of the police.
“People’s requests for improving their environment must be respected,” wrote Han Han in the post. “You leaders change every few years. You take on environmental destruction with nice-looking certificates of achievement. If you do well you get promoted, if you don’t you get jail. The best of you emigrate, the worst of you are shot. But none of you actually live in the pollution. Only ordinary people live there.”
“Thanks to the spread of information, more people are aware of their rights,” the 19-year-old protestor Li Yonglin adds. “The people have drawn a line between them and the government. The people will not continue believing what the government feeds them and simply follow it. I hope that the influence of Shifang will travel around. China will improve little by little.”