China is boiling mad. Last week, residents of Chengdu rallied against French retail giant Carrefour as part of a nationwide retaliation for perceived insults against China by France over the recent protests in Tibet. But a more subdued protest in the city, the capital of Sichuan province, last weekend took on a threat more dangerous than France: a nearby petrochemical factory and oil refinery. According to the Times,
The protesters walked peacefully through the center of the city for several hours on Sunday to criticize the building of an ethylene plant and oil refinery in Pengzhou, a few minutes' drive outside the city. Some protesters wore white face masks to highlight the dangers of pollution. About 400 to 500 protesters took part in the march, which was watched by dozens of police officers, witnesses said.
Under a government leery of dissent, it can be hard to hold a demonstration, or at least to know how many happen every day. But in an age of cell phone cameras and video sharing sites, it's getting harder to hide these local protests. And technology is making it harder to stop them too. Like the large protests against a similar plant in Xiamen last year and the demonstrations over a maglev line in Shanghai in January, this protest was organized via text messages, bulletin boards and blogs. And by calling the event a "stroll," organizers managed to circumvent government restrictions on protests. There may not have been any fires or deaths, as in Tibet. But Chengdu was a sign of a much more realistic and powerful brand of dissent in China.
UPDATE: Although some activists were arrested just before China's May 12 earthquake struck Sichuan province, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has said it will investigate the project, while PetroChina, the company behind the factory, said that if earthquake damage was severe, it would abandon the project.From one angle, such protests might be seen as advantageous to the interests of the central government. These demonstrations provide a crucial airing of grievances, and peaceful walks are far superior to the violent uprisings that have littered China's past. And by rallying under the banner of the government's much-touted "harmonious society" and its professed interest in transparency and reform, organizers are, at least in name, appealing to, not questioning, the government's authority and the nation's strength. It's as if protesters are saying to the government, "We have faith in you, so listen to us, help us."
And how can the government respond to this kind of dissent? It can't bring out the batons and guns, as happened after the violent protests in Tibet. It can't appeal to nationalism, or point the finger at fictional scapegoats.
That's because this local environmentally-based anger is homegrown. It doesn't involve the international community, which China views as meddlesome and hypocritical, or a minority group that has long clamored for autonomy. Neither does it involve the rural poor or students, who are rightly feared as an instigator of revolution. These protests are the work of middle-class Chinese with a case of the NIMBYs.
Sounds tame. But the urban middle class -- who are generally satisfied with the country but critical, articulate, and armed with the internet and cell phones -- could prove to be the biggest agent of change in China. These aren't Tibetan protesters or Western critics. These are people at the heart of China's future economic development, at the heart of its cities, its technological advances -- and let's not forget, its consumption -- and they're growing in number. And with the Olympics approaching and the world watching, the government has little choice but to at least appear to listen. If it doesn't, as happened in the 1940s or the late 1980s, there could be more than environmental disaster ahead.
More on activism in China:
In China, Hold the Cell Phone for Environmental Activism
Social Consciousness, Mapped
China's Newest Anti-Pollution Weapon: A Map
When China's Green Goals Clash Against Red Ones
China's Green Revolution: How Far Will it (Not) Go?