Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

People power a sign of times in China's internet age

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN
July 6, 2012 -- Updated 1038 GMT (1838 HKT)
Police guard government offices in Shifang after authorities bowed to violent protests against a chemical plant.
Police guard government offices in Shifang after authorities bowed to violent protests against a chemical plant.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Government officials in southwestern city of Shifang abandoned plans to build a chemical plant
  • The decision followed concerted pressure from thousands of angry local residents
  • Analysts say internet allowed tales of police abuse to filter out, generating widespread anger
  • But other observers warn China will crack down on protests when they can

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and was TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing (CNN) -- Every so often, grassroots activism succeeds in China.

We saw one this week.

Caving in to public pressure, government officials in the southwestern city of Shifang in Sichuan Province abandoned plans to build a billion-dollar chemical plant.

Plant abandoned amid protests

This came just days after thousands of angry residents took to the streets in protest at the city's bid to build the $1.6 billion Molybdrenum plant.

City officials said it had passed all environmental evaluations, but local residents, worried about long-term pollution and health hazards, said "no."

Watch copper plant protest turn violent
Chen Guangcheng's life in New York
Freedom is a three-bedroom apartment
Fighting the great firewall
China censors Anderson Cooper

Defying government and police orders, they marched to the chant of "Protect Shifang's environment, return our beautiful home!"

Soon enough, the mayor conceded and promised to suspend construction. Then on Friday, the city's Communist Party chief was sacked.

"The people have achieved their goals if their protest was just a NIMBY (not in my backyard) movement," the Global Times noted rather acerbically.

But some political observers see beyond parochial backyards.

"It is a stunning case of a local NIMBY movement coalescing with the support of nationwide public opinion through the internet," said Xiao Qiang, a U.S.-based expert on the Chinese internet.

"The new media, particularly through (Twitter-like) Weibo and popular forums such as Kaidi.net played an absolutely critical role in the whole process."

Xiao said netizens spread the news instantly and widely, exposed police violence against protesters and generated popular outrage.

"With such national exposure and public opinion on the protesters' side, the local authorities had no choice but to cave in instantly," he said.

A few other NIMBY protesters have succeeded in China.

In 2009, local residents rallied and aborted a government plan to build a waste incinerator plant in a suburban town in southern Guangzhou city.

That same year, Shanghai residents foiled a city plan to construct a high-speed train line using magnetic levitation technology complete with a raised concrete track.

Last August, thousands of protesters forced officials in the northeastern port city of Dalian to shut down and promise to relocate a controversial chemical plant that produced paraxylene (PX), which residents feared was carcinogenic.

Political observers attribute these successes to smart tactics.

"The environment is a perfect issue for the public to exploit the central-local divide," said Wenfang Tang, a political science professor at the University of Iowa in the U.S.

"People know when to claim their right to resist the local government by using central government regulations," Tang explained.

"Beijing is often sympathetic to such public demand since it does not hurt its own legitimacy. Scholars describe this tactic as the 'rightful resistance.'"

They should learn that when facing massive demonstrations, using brutal force can have the opposite result than intended, especially in the Internet age.
Xiao Qiang, China watcher

This is best exemplified by one of the Shifang protesters' banners: "Long live the Communist Party, kick out the copper factory!"

But China has been grappling with a spike in social unrest.

Anger has been rising over land seizures, a growing wealth divide, official corruption and environmental pollution.

Rural unrest is also a problem, though nothing new.

In the early 1990s, I covered a farmers' protest in Sichuan over unpopular taxation policies. But what is new is the increased scope and frequency of the protests. They have now spread to towns and cities.

Another new factor is the Weibo phenomenon.

The hugely popular micro-blogging service now has more than 300 million subscribers who post about 100 million tweets every day.

Despite government censorship, Weibo is tearing down walls that block the free flow of information. Government censors cannot completely stop Weibo users from downloading and forwarding news and views via Weibo.

When Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist, escaped house arrest and took refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, sustained public attention on Weibo helped put pressure on Chinese and American officials to seek a diplomatic solution.

"The spotlight makes a huge difference," said Gregory Lee, a professor at the University of Lyon in France. "The Chen Guangcheng case was dealt with in reaction of media attention."

Chen Guangcheng on his next move

Chen has since been allowed to leave and study in the U.S.

When these unsavory events break, most official Chinese media are usually tight-lipped, or are careful to provide information following the official lines.

"It is worth pointing out that while the official media kept its usual silence during the entire time, there was very little online censorship applied on this event, at least in the first couple of days," said Xiao.

Xiao thinks the censors' apparent inaction could be because pictures and protest messages spread too fast for the censors to control; or it could be a deliberate decision by censors in Beijing because it involves a local environmental issue.

The University of Iowa's Tang says it is not uncommon nowadays for local governments to give in to demands on issues like the environment and labor rights -- but not on core issues.

"I doubt if the local government would compromise so easily had it been a protest for ethnic autonomy in Tibet," he said.

Is official tolerance and compromise now the new normal?

Not necessarily, observers agree.

"If the central authorities are determined to suppress the information and opposition voices, they can still contain the scale of public awareness," said Xiao, founder of China Digital Times, a U.S.-based bilingual website on China.

"Collective demonstrations will occur over and over but the authorities will still seek to deal with them oppressively where they can," added Lee, author of "China's Lost Decade," which looks at China's Cultural Revolution.

But Xiao says local officials can learn a lesson or two from this week's Shifang episode.

"They should learn that when facing massive demonstrations, using brutal force can have the opposite result than intended, especially in the internet age, since there is risk that violence will be exposed quickly in front of the whole nation."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has hit its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
July 4, 2014 -- Updated 0631 GMT (1431 HKT)
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0656 GMT (1456 HKT)
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
June 30, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0836 GMT (1636 HKT)
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 0638 GMT (1438 HKT)
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
June 16, 2014 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
ADVERTISEMENT