Mixed Views & Fisticuffs Over Shifang Protests (Updated)

An online argument about environmental protests in Sichuan, which halted construction of a large molybdenum copper plant, reportedly spilled into a Beijing park on Friday. From Global Times:

Wu Danhong, 33, an assistant professor at China University of Political Science and Law, and Zhou Yan, a female reporter from Sichuan Television Station, agreed Thursday to meet at 1 pm Friday at the park to “settle” a spat on Weibo.

Wu made a controversial post on Weibo on Tuesday saying that a molybdenum copper plant project in Shifang, Sichuan Province, later cancelled after protests, was not harmful to the environment, as molybdenum and copper are necessary elements for the human body.

[…] “Both Ai Weiwei and Yao Bo, a well-known columnist and affairs commentator came,” Wu told the Global Times on Friday. “About 30 or 40 people were with Zhou Yan while I was alone.”

Wu then claimed that “Zhou Yan, Ai Weiwei and Yao Bo beat me, and I suffered many cuts and bruises.”

(Update: for background and another side to the story, see Beijing Cream’s account.)

An editorial at the newspaper roundly condemned the incident, which it said “shames all Weibo intellectuals“:

[…] There was no winner in this farce.

Physical fighting over conflicting political thoughts is the most vulgar behavior yet carried out by a few online intellectuals, also tainting democratic movements on the microblog. Neither challenger nor defender could be labeled as brave, and they have forsaken the virtues of tolerance and decency in this incident.

It is especially disappointing that some famed people were part of that scenario or applauded the result.

We call on the police to punish those who beat others, so as to prevent this practice from seeming legitimate.

An earlier editorial had pointed out students’ key role in the Shifang unrest, described at Offbeat China. This echoed the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Global Times argued, while stressing that last week’s protests had revolved more around environmental than political concerns.

The underage group, immature but passionate, and free of family burdens and social pressure, can easily be misguided by movements initiated by adults. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), red guards, mainly consisting of high school students, showed a tendency to violence and cruelty.

Their impulses and vulnerability to manipulation were fully displayed during that decade. In every normal peaceful country, high school students should focus on school work. It is a revolutionary instinct to urge young students to join a mass protest.

The protest in Shifang highlights the urgency of adjusting the decision-making process in China. Though violence broke out, it was a conflict caused by environmental concerns, and was obviously not a revolution. Similar concerns are common in many other countries.

Global Times also reported a reshuffling of Shifang’s leadership in the wake of the protests. Its coverage was an exception to the general rule, wrote David Bandurski at China Media Project: most Chinese media reports made no mention of social unrest in Shifang, mentioning only a business setback whose cause was unspecified.

Just to give readers a taste, here is the lede for the story appearing on page 28 of Chengdu Commercial News, a Sichuan newspaper:

Recently, Sichuan Hongda (600331) has been the focus of attention over its molybdenum-copper project in Shifang. Yesterday (July 4), Sichuan Hongda, which suspended trading for one day, said that the company received a notice on July 3 demanding that . . . construction be halted for the project. This negative factor drove Sichuan Hongda shares down 9.2% on re-opening of trading . . .

Elsewhere, views on the protests’ apparent success have been mixed. CDT founder Xiao Qiang celebrated the outcome in comments to CNN’s Jaime FlorCruz:

“It is a stunning case of a local NIMBY movement coalescing with the support of nationwide public opinion through the internet,” said Xiao Qiang, a U.S.-based expert on the Chinese internet.

“The new media, particularly through (Twitter-like) Weibo and popular forums such as Kaidi.net played an absolutely critical role in the whole process.”

Xiao said netizens spread the news instantly and widely, exposed police violence against protesters and generated popular outrage.

“With such national exposure and public opinion on the protesters’ side, the local authorities had no choice but to cave in instantly,” he said.

But Madeline Earp at the Committee to Protect Journalists argued that cases like Shifang “create the appearance of official accountability, but ultimately lack substance.”

The strategy of diverting criticism is perfectly illustrated by […] environmental protests in Shifang, western China, over a metal plant that locals feared would cause pollution. Police targeted protesters documenting the unrest, and censors erased coverage from social media, yet the sometimes-violent clashes were still the most searched topic on Weibo, Sina’s microblog service, on Tuesday, according to The New York Times. When the local government cancelled building at the plant which had sparked the riots and released some detained protesters, the international press almost universally hailed it as a victory for the people.

Officials kowtowing to citizens’ demands to quell protests has become routine in China, but the follow-through has not. Officials in Dalian said a chemical plant would be closed after protesters took to the streets in August 2011, but it resumed production in January, according to CNN. Authorities in Xiamen acceded to demonstrators’ demands to move a chemical plant in 2007, but publicly pursued the protest organizers, according to law professor Benjamin Van Rooij from the Netherlands.

[… M]iddle-class locals defending their hometown in Shifang, may be articulating their rights and demanding more from China’s leaders. But they are also perpetuating a cycle of protests that authorities can diffuse without the need for reform or redress for serious injustice. That is not a victory.