Tenuous Calm After Pollution Protests (Updated)

AFP reports quiet in Qidong amid a heavy police presence following Saturday’s violent protests against a planned pipeline.

“People don’t dare to go out in the streets today,” said a local resident, who for safety reasons only gave her name as Qin.

“Thousands of security forces have been deployed to Qidong to prevent further gatherings against the police,” she told AFP, adding that residents were wary of police retaliation after some were beaten in Saturday’s protests.

Up to three people were killed in the violence and scores were injured, while up to 100 were detained by police, according to rights watchdog Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

The violence began after police began violently beating a young female protester, it said, citing witnesses.

A reporter for The Asahi Shimbun, Atsushi Okudera, was reportedly beaten by police while covering the protests. The newspaper has complained to the Chinese government, and Japan’s Consulate General in nearby Shanghai is investigating the incident. From The Asahi Shimbun:

Okudera, 41, was attacked when he was shooting pictures of demonstrators under attack by police. He was on the street in front of the municipal police building in Qidong.

All of a sudden, his camera was seized by police and 15 to 20 officers surrounded him and shoved him to the ground.

Although Okudera identified himself as a reporter, police kicked him for about 20 seconds. One of the officers jumped on him.

Police seized his press ID when he showed it to them after they stopped beating him and didn’t return his camera, which contained images he shot of the protest.

CHRD’s account of how the violence started, if true, may blunt some criticism of the protesters’ conduct. Shanghai-based blogger Jian Shuo Wang wrote on Saturday that “we crossed the line, seriously crossed the line […]. Right goal always cannot prove the rightness of process. If we continue to follow the current thinking too far, China may enter into the next terrible violence-ruled circle.” Others, though, have suggested that violence is inevitable when other avenues for raising grievances are blocked. From Tsinghua professor Patrick Chovanec, for example:

Peaceful protest did seem to have secured the closure of a controversial chemical plant in Dalian last year. But even Dalian was a sign of a dysfunctional system, Tang Hao wrote soon afterwards at chinadialogue, lamenting the “sinister truth[ that] from officials to activists, everyone is ignoring the rules”.

Following the uproar, Dalian authorities ordered the managers of the Fujia Dahua facility immediately to halt production and relocate their plant: the public campaign had concluded with the government bowing to public opinion – on the surface, a triumph. But the whole case highlights how, in the absence of strong rule of law, China’s environmental management has taken the road of what I call “interaction without rules”. This brings its own set of problems.

On environmental issues, “interaction without rules” normally goes through three stages: first, local interest groups and local governments push ahead with a polluting project in violation of environmental regulations. Second, local people spontaneously organise mass protests against the project in question, an activity supported by neither law nor policy. And third, in response to the threat to social stability created by the protests, local government halts the project – again, breaching laws. At every stage, the existing rules are lightly cast aside by all participants.

Tang noted, however, that such protests might ultimately lead to “positive interaction and system reform”, pointing to Taiwan’s environmental and other campaigns of the 1980s. Mark McDonald cited Dalian, Qidong, Shifang and others as possible signs of a developing “Chinese Street” at The New York Times’ Rendezvous blog:

Although there are tens of thousands of civic protests every year in China, most are small-scale, ineffectual and officially smothered. But high profile demonstrations over environmental issues are occurring with more regularity, size, violence and political oomph — in Dalian (a petrochemical plant), in Zuotan (land grabs) and earlier this month in Shifang (a heavy-metals smelter). Deadly floods and a feeble government response in Beijing last week also led to a huge outcry online.

“These demonstrations represent a new grassroots force made possible by social media tools such as Weibo (China’s Twitter), the messenger service QQ and online forums,” said Monica Tan, a Web editor with Greenpeace East Asia, writing on The Diplomat blog. “These protests can be characterized by how swiftly they are organized and the way they happen outside more formal structures like unions, NGOs or political parties.”

Other, offline factors are also at play, Willy Wo-Lap Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong told Bloomberg:

The Qidong protests “demonstrate that ordinary people’s awareness of their rights has increased and they are more willing to assert their rights,” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history […], said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It also demonstrates more sophistication on the part of the authorities in handling protests.”

Cases interpreted by the authorities as potentially “anti- party or anti-government” would lead to a crackdown “mercilessly and with a lot of force,” Lam said. “But if a protest is regarded as basically economic and environmental in nature, they are more willing to strike a deal.”

See also CDT’s collection of photos and video from the protests and an infographic, translated by Tea Leaf Nation, explaining the protesters’ grievances.

[Updated at 23:40 PST]: Global Times reports one arrest for “spreading rumors online saying police had beaten to death a young man and a 9-year-old girl”.

The Japanese paper company at the centre of the controversial plans has again defended its adherence to environmental standards. From AFP:

“There are some reports that discharged water would contain carcinogens but that is totally groundless,” it said.

“We are controlling water quality in a responsible manner by purifying water enough to satisfy China’s national standards.”

[…] Oji Paper had not invested in the planned pipeline, said a company spokesman in Tokyo. Its plant was not operating Monday, he added, and the firm was considering whether to resume operations Tuesday.

In a very extensive round-up of photos, commentary and other information, Minister of Tofu Jing Gao translated a selection of posts by prominent microbloggers, many of whom expressed mixed feelings about protesters’ use of violence.

Han Han, China’s most influential blogger and author, wrote, “The city government has fallen and been occupied. The state apparatus showed restraint. The project has been permanently canceled. The mayor’s top was stripped. But as long as he does not seek revenge later on, he is still more dignified than those well-dressed government officials who ordered a crackdown. I hope people in Qidong can be gratified with the result and stop at it. I will even warn officials elsewhere, stop before it goes too bad.”

[…] Ge Sang, an anchorwoman at Shanghai Media Group, wrote, “Why did you have to charge at the city government while protesting? Can ransacking the mayor’s office help your appeal? The public behave like rogues even before the authorities strike the first blow. Isn’t this going to give others a handle against you?…When activism turns into smashing, beating and ransacking, don’t blame others if you are met with tear gas.”

He Zhenbiao, a communications professor at Zhejiang University, wrote, “I support the public for their expression of opinion on the street. This is the lesson 101 in a modern civilized society. But please allow me to remind them, this may be only a step away from the remnants of the Cultural Revolution…Express opinion with reason. Stroll with peace. Oppose personal attacks. Draw the line between public affairs and private matters.”

At Global Voices, Oiwan Lam outlined the heated disagreement between the protesters’ critics and supporters:

Li Kaifu: [The courage to stop a loaded arrow] Back in 2006, a million protesters dressed in red surrounded the Chen Shuibian government in Taiwan, the leader Si Mingde insisted that they should not crush into the building and no blood should be shed. He did not romanticize the means [the use of force]. If the protesters took the wrong path, an army of justice would become sinners in history. He said: “An arrow is loaded and is ready to take the shot, it takes more courage and wisdom to unload it then letting it go off.” I wish people from Jiansu would see this.

布吉-moxie: Mr Li, at least you have to distinguish the difference between the political systems in the two regions, one is democratic, one is authoritative. Could the Jews have negotiated with Hitler? Of course ordinary people don’t want to shed blood, but when there is no other way out, they are brave enough to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause.

Global Times editor in chief Hu Xijin criticised all parties, from the Qidong local government to those who cheered on the violence. The netizen comments chosen to accompany his on the newspaper’s website spread the blame even further, to government control of the media and heavy-handed policing:

The situation in Qidong demonstrates once again that China’s society fears pollution, a sentiment which once stirred will create a desperate and destructive power. This has already become a serious political problem. The government should communicate with the public before making decisions on such sensitive environmental issues. Otherwise, the government should be held accountable for not fulfilling its duty. People who violated the law should also be punished in accordance with the law. I condemn everyone who applauded the violence that took place.

@随事理: Just like in the Shifang event, most people only learn about Qidong through gossip and rumor. The question is when will people have the right to know the whole truth and when will mainstream media provide the public with timely information?

@wsirsir: There is no doubt that violence is not to be allowed. However we must be against violence of all kinds, both among citizens and government. Our society should build an effective system of communication, which is not only needed after conflict occurs, but also to prevent such problems. People should have the right to freely express their opinions through proper channels. The question is whether the government respects this right to expression? Is there any such channel? Does the government represent the people’s interests or their own?

A Global Times editorial even implied that the central government shared some blame for failing to give local authorities sufficient guidance:

The Qidong protest may have been inspired and encouraged by the Shifang incident. They both achieved the same result through extreme approaches. The quick compromise made by the Qidong government may also have been learnt from Shifang.

The two protests have together left the impression that the fastest way to change a government policy is to hold a violent demonstration. If this model is copied widely, it would be disastrous for social stability. It encourages the public to resort to radical methods to realize its demands.

This model must be broken. Policies concerning broad public interests cannot be decided only by officials. Public participation needs to be implemented, and not just as a show. […]

[…] The blame should not be shouldered solely by the two local governments. There is no clear policy or regulation on dealing with mass incidents. Choking under the pressure of public opinion and the tough task of maintaining social order before the coming Party congress proved too much for two small city governments. Their desperate reactions were intuitive.