By Graham Land
The internet is taking a lot of credit for fermenting social unrest and facilitating effective protest. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Green Revolution in Iran are three well-known examples of how social media has played a role in grass-roots, people-based political actions.
China is a country outsiders tend to view as having a conformist society controlled by an authoritarian central government, but that would be not just an obvious gross simplification, but also an inaccurate conception. Recently in the city of Shifang in Sichuan Province, local protests against a proposed chemical plant successfully resulted in the local government scrapping its plans.
Local residents defied government and police orders and marched in protest of what they saw as a future source of pollution, health hazards and other environmental degradation.
Soon things got heated.
The protests turned violent on Monday when tens of thousands of residents stormed the city government headquarters, smashed police cars and clashed with thousands of anti-riot police, who fired tear gas on protesters.
When word spread about the protest and video footage, such as this clip showing riot police using tear gas against demonstrators, went viral on the internet public opinion swelled in favor of the protesters.
From a CNN report:
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.
–Xiao Qiang founder of China Digital Times
This picture of a cop in riot gear flipping the bird probably helped a bit too.
Media have been referring to the anti-copper allow plant protests in China as a case of NIMBY (not in my back yard) activism. But what else are people left to do when a potentially hazardous billion dollar project comes to their city without getting a say in the matter? In recent years similar protests against major projects with environmental concerns have been successful in Dalian, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
And the use of tools such as the online social media takes a bit of the NIMBY stigma away from these protests because they make use of non-local support and alternative media. It was specifically due to the efficacy of social media that the Shifang public security bureau issued strict warnings against the use of the internet or mobile phones to organize protest at risk of severe punishment.
Another issue these protests highlight is the conflict between the Chinese government’s headlong policies of economic growth and growing environmental concerns about the kind of ecological destruction and human health problems such growth policies bring. No one knows this conflict better than the people of Shifang, hard hit by a 2008 earthquake which crippled the local economy and killed 70,000 people. Despite these hardships, government orders and the threat of serious punishment, they still chose their environment and health over the economic boon of a massive chemical plant.