(July 5, 2012) Violent, public protest in China has halted construction of a controversial copper alloy plant in Shifang City, in Sichuan province. In a country with no free press, people left reeling by social media reports of police brutality took to the Internet to intervene. Meanwhile, the nation’s civil rights movement views the Shifang stand-off against government and industry as a turning point for citizen activism, with youth the drivers of a grassroots momentum to fight back.
By Lisa Peryman for Probe International
Numbering in their tens of thousands, residents of Shifang took to the city’s streets to protest a proposed $1.64 billion copper alloy plant many feared would poison them, cause severe pollution and place the region’s rich groundwater resources at high risk of contamination.
Three days of intense demonstrations were brought to a head by the arrival of anti-riot police, who dispersed crowds with tear gas, stun grenades (a non-lethal explosive device) and clubs. In a move rare for any Chinese authority, the government of Shifang bowed to public pressure and announced on its Sina Weibo microblog that the project would not go ahead, after initially moving only to suspend construction of the plant.
“Shifang will not build this project henceforth,” Shifang Communist Party head Li Chengjing said in the posted statement.
The decision was made in response to public concerns, he added.
The Shifang protest began quietly enough as a student-based rallying effort with thousands of youth, many of them high-school students, filling the streets. The broader community joined in after authorities were alleged to have threatened them.
On Monday, the Shifang protest took a violent turn when residents allegedly stormed the headquarters of their city government, smashed police cars and clashed with anti-riot police, who fired tear gas on protesters.
One correspondent said Shifang continued to use violence to shut down the protesters despite nationwide condemnation against the strength of anti-riot police actions. Social media users circulated photographs purportedly from the demonstrations of individual police officers at the scene of protest, and shock remains high at the level of force employed. Local restaurants in the area posted their support with notices reading: “This place refuses riot police”.
The Shifang incident, and the public support and anger generated, reflects the rising discontent—particularly in regards to environmental and health threats—Chinese leaders now face.
A Shanghai-based sociologist speaking anonymously to CNA, China’s national news agency, said the Shifang protest spurred hopes for change in undemocratic China.
He said youth had played a major role in the demonstrations and had at their disposal multiple means, thanks to modern technology, when it came to social organizing. Even official statements by the Shifang government were released via a microblogging site, he notes.
Such a development demonstrates that the Chinese government cannot stick to the old ways and continue to control people’s thoughts, and should instead work to strengthen its communication with the public, he said.
Significantly, Chinese authorities, often swift in the face of dissent, did not block searches (at least, for a while) related to the protest on China’s Twitter-like microblogs. “Shifang” remained the most searched term throughout the country on Wednesday.
Han Han, a high-profile Chinese blogger denounced officials on his blog: “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.”
The Shifang protest follows similar demonstrations in the cities of Dalian in the northeast, to close a chemical plant there, and Haimen in southern Guangdong province, to prevent a coal-fired power plant from construction.
Both demonstrations were believed to have been organized through Chinese micro-blogging and instant messaging websites.