Before last Monday, Shifang, a city in southwestern China, was mostly known to outsiders as the producer of handmade cigars enjoyed by Mao Zedong and other top Communist leaders. After Monday, the city’s more traditional reputation was quickly eclipsed by a new one for the 21st century: It became the site of a massive grassroots protest aided by Chinese social media like Weibo, an equivalent to Twitter.
On Friday, June 29, the groundbreaking ceremony for a new $1.6 billion copper refinery in Shifang took place. Local officials heralded it as a much-needed economic revitalization opportunity for the city, especially after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake devastated the region, killing nearly 6,000 in the city and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. But concerned Shifang citizens, who were reportedly caught by surprise by the announcement, began spreading awareness of the plant, distributing pamphlets across the city:
Citizens of Shifang, please save our hometown!! The city of Shifang is already a ‘cancer village,’ and now they are going to build that heavy metal industrial molybdenum-copper alloy plant. We are strongly opposed to it. This is our home. Protecting it is our responsibility. It is everyone’s responsibility to protect the environment!! (Translation from Ministry of Tofu)
Thousands took to the streets two days later, gathering in the public square and in front of government buildings throughout Sunday evening to express their concern over the chemicals that would be produced by the plant.
On Monday, local riot police were ordered to move in and were caught on film and video doing their job: turning tear gas and batons against defiant participants, some of whom reportedly grew disorderly in response. The police returned again the next day, and continued their attempts to disperse the growing crowds.
However, in what is now becoming a familiar narrative in China, pressure from on-the-ground protesters — combined with the millions more virtual ones online who shared and commented on the photos and videos flowing out of Shifang — forced the central government to intervene.
As in the recent case of Wukan, central government officials are much more willing to accede to local citizens so long as their protests don’t sprawl into issues of political reform. Political scientist Wenfeng Tang noted, “Beijing is often sympathetic to such public demand since it does not hurt its own legitimacy.” Observers have described such cautious opposition as, in the eyes of the government, “rightful resistance.”
The environment is a particularly good example of an issue that local protesters have been able to successfully rally around without facing severe punishments — so long as their case isn’t first snuffed out by local officials or companies and their security forces. Thus, Weibo and other social media are of paramount importance in cases like Shifang and Wukan. As word of the Shifang clash began circulating online on Monday, Shifang (什邡) became the most searched-for term on Weibo, and though there were the inevitable attempts to censor the posting of messages about Shifang and searches for the term, 什邡 for the most part remained unblocked, perhaps a sign that central government leaders recognized that the local officials were a convenient scapegoat. An essay by China’s enfant terrible, blogger and race car driver Han Han, only fueled the lively conversation online. Soon, it was clear that the balance had been tipped in the protesters’ favor.
On Tuesday evening, the local government conceded by posting a message saying that the refinery project would be shelved. At 11 p.m. that night, the majority of arrested protesters were released, and on Wednesday, explicit criticism of the local officials and support for the protesters came in the form of an editorial in the official state-run English newspaper, The Global Times:
It is in such circumstances that local governments should earnestly deal with every single industrial project that carries environmental concerns. They should tell the truth to the public, rather than harbor the illusion that public opinion can be controlled when it comes to environmental issues.
On Thursday, the vilified top official in Shifang was officially punished with a demotion, and a new party secretary was announced as his replacement, a mere four days after the start of the protests. This was a decided victory for what had begun as a seemingly simple “not in my backyard” protest but eventually became a symbol for China’s complex balancing act between economic growth and environmental concerns, as well as another positive sign that Chinese leadership is becoming more responsive to local concerns — so long as the story makes it to Weibo. Time will tell, however, whether the refinery project has been permanently cancelled or whether it will be re-started once the furor dies down, as has apparently happened in other cities.
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