A hard rain’s a-gonna fall – people power the real story in Beijing

(July 30, 2012) As Beijing’s dramatic flood disaster unfolded, the people of Beijing did not wait for the government to step up—which, by all accounts, it did not—citizens instead relied on people power: a growing phenomenon, animated by social media, that portends winds of change for China’s political elite.

China’s New Political Class: The People

By Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations, Asia Unbound

July 26, 2012

Rescuers and residents stand next to a stranded car which is being pulled up from a flooded street under the Guangqumen overpass amid heavy rainfalls in Beijing on July 21, 2012. (Joe Chan / Courtesy Reuters)

Chinese people power has arrived. As China’s top officials meet in Beidaihe to finalize their selections for the country’s new leadership, they are being overshadowed by a different, and increasingly potent, political class—the Chinese people. From Beijing to Jiangsu to Guangdong, Chinese citizens are making their voices heard on the Internet and their actions felt on the streets.  Take the terrible flooding in Beijing this past weekend. Thus far, the municipal government estimates that the flooding has caused around $1.88 billion in damages, with more than 65,ooo residents evacuated from their homes and 77 dead. The local government was clearly caught flat-footed: the early warning system failed; police officers were reportedly busy ticketing stranded cars rather than helping citizens in need; and workers at toll plazas continued to collect fees as people desperately tried to escape the rising waters. Popular criticism over the government’s handling of the crisis has been unrelenting, and even the state-supported Global Times has reported on how the government’s credibility was damaged by its weak response.

Yet in important ways, the government’s inaction has become a secondary story. Beijing residents didn’t wait for their officials to do the right thing. As China Digital Times described, Weibo came alive with offers of help: “I live near Tiantan East Gate. If anyone nearby needs to rest, you can come to my place…”; “My office is at Zuojiazhuang A2 Beijing Friendship Garden 1-6H. We have water, snacks, TV, computers, wifi, beds sofas, Sanguo Sha and hot showers! All for free!…” Hundreds of people drove to Beijing Capital Airport to try to assist the 80,000 odd passengers stranded there.

Further down China’s coast, a different form of people power has emerged, and a new generation of political activists is taking hold. In Qidong, Jiangsu province, public health concerns have led thousands of high school students and others to organize a protest to block the construction of a new sewage treatment plant.  Via the Internet, the students found inspiration in the June protest in Shifang, Sichuan Province, where tens of thousands of people (including high school students) blocked plans for a molybdenum-copper alloy factory. With the Qidong protest slated for this coming Saturday, local officials are working overtime to quash the demonstration, even calling teachers back from their vacations to pressure the students to stay home.

Further south in Foshan, Guangdong Province, Chinese villagers once again took to the streets in an attempt to obtain justice in the face of local official corruption and illegal land grabs. Here too, the Internet proved a decisive factor: local residents first learned about the illegal land sales by reading government websites.

Chinese officials are grappling with how best to navigate this growing phenomenon of Chinese people power facilitated by the Internet. Certainly, they are trying to co-opt the technology to get their own message out to the people. Many officials and government offices have Weibo accounts which they use to communicate directly with their constituents: in one county in Zhejiang Province, a Weibo writing test is now included in the promotion exam for local officials.  And, while Party censors have responded in their usual heavy-handed manner to the criticism surrounding Beijing’s flood response, Beijing municipal government spokeswoman Wang Hui has used her personal account to address the concerns of the people in a relatively open and direct manner, calling the people’s discontent “very normal” and acknowledging that the government has much work to do.

Some in the Party leadership also recognize that the challenge they face in building good governance is more than good messaging. At a recent gathering of municipal party secretaries, Li Yuanchao, who oversees personnel appointments from his perch as head of the Organization Department and is a likely candidate for the Standing Committee of the Politburo, spoke forcefully of the need for local party secretaries to “understand and comply with the will of the people.” Moreover, he emphasized officials must understand that they are basically “servants of the public” and that the satisfaction of the public is the most basic measure of the officials’ work.

Li’s message is one that has been delivered many times in recent years, apparently to little effect. It seems, however, that the country’s newest political actors—the Chinese people—have heard Li’s message and are more than willing to take to the web and to the streets to let their local officials know they are not going to forget it.

Elizabeth Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared here as an entry of Asia Unbound.

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