China Ink

People power

A look back at how the press covered protests against a new industrial plant in Shifang

A victory for the protesters?

Han Han, a prominent blogger with 5.5 million weibo followers, said the incident showed that the public’s call for a cleaner environment had to be respected by local officials. “You leaders change every few years,” he warned. “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.”

Some of the sensitivity was understandable, The Economist suggested, as two chemical plants in Shifang collapsed in 2008 as a result of the Sichuan earthquake, leaking tonnes of ammonia and forcing thousands of people out of the city. Still, The New York Times wondered whether the project was definitely off, after the municipal government announced a special phone line and email account to promote a “correct understanding” of the plant. That seemed to suggest that construction might resume in the future.

And the key themes identified by the press?

China’s newspapers talked more about the financial impact on Sichuan Hongda (for more on that firm, see WiC64), whose share price plummeted. Less was said of demonstrations. But the authorities didn’t block discussion of the protests online and weibo postings were extensive, including photos of the injuries suffered by some of the demonstrators. That meant that newspaper commentary couldn’t avoid the topic completely. One theme picked up on by the Global Times was the youth of many of the demonstrators, whom it regarded as “immature but passionate”. For older readers the newspaper then drew a wary historical analogy: “During the Cultural Revolution, red guards, mainly consisting of high school students, showed a tendency to violence and cruelty.”

The Financial Times also noticed the large number of students protesting in Shifang. It said that unlike the generation born in the 1980s, China’s post-90 generation shows signs of being more politically engaged, speculating that this was likely because most were better educated and enjoyed access to more information thanks to the internet. Indeed the role of weibo – China’s Twitter-equivalent – in publicising the situation in Shifang was a recurring theme for international media. Xiao Qiang, a US-based expert on the Chinese internet, told CNN: “It is a stunning case of a local NIMBY [not-in-my-backyard] movement coalescing with the support of nationwide public opinion through the internet.”

It’s the local government getting the blame?

There had been a major failure of communication, thought the Global Times, which still reckoned that “objectively, the escalation of the scenario in Shifang doesn’t mean the project itself was completely wrong”. But the case had been handled poorly, with “serious loopholes” in local decisionmaking, the newspaper suggested.

One outcome: by the end of the week, the town’s Party chief had been replaced.

This was a genuine miscalculation by Shifang’s bureaucrats, said Asia Times Online. It noted that the central government has poured Rmb1 trillion ($156.8 billion) into the wider region since the Sichuan earthquake four years ago. “One might think that this reconstruction effort, paired with the construction of an immense tax and employment-generating industrial enterprise, would endow the local government with a measure of prestige, revenue and political security,” the website concluded. Not so.


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