PX Protests, Hollow Victories and Forced Demolitions

Last weekend, following an increasingly familiar pattern, protests in the coastal city of Ningbo won the promised suspension of a controversial paraxylene (PX) plant. At China Media Project, David Bandurski discussed the role of social media in amplifying protests while helping to counter the authorities’ response.

One of the most interesting dynamics we see again in the Ningbo PX case is the face-off between social media and “stability preservation,” in recent years the Party’s most robust method of dealing with social instability.

Rapid economic development in the absence of transparent and inclusive institutions in China has generated an upswell of social unrest. Party leaders have tried to balance this equation with massive spending on “stability preservation,” the mobilizing of domestic security forces against the population. But in some sense, social media are now upsetting this equation. Thanks largely to social media, the tactics of “stability preservation” are increasingly under scrutiny.

[…] Mao Zedong famously said that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Surely, though, he never envisioned the mobile phone glaring back, the eye connected instantly to millions of others.

In cases focused on local grievances, those wielding the phones may be assisted by the organisational structure of online censorship. From Melanie Lee at Reuters:

Part of the reason […] is rooted in the geography of power in China: edicts on what to censor are issued from the central government in Beijing. This means provincial officials have less say over what gets cut from China’s boisterous Weibo.

“If a party secretary is criticized, it is hard for them to go all the way to Beijing and say ‘please delete everything on Weibo about me’,” said Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley who founded news website China Digital Times that keeps an updated list of banned words on Weibo.

“If it is just local and does not implicate someone higher up…(the censors) often will let it go. On the other hand, they do make very swift judgments on information they see as challenging the legitimacy of the party,” Xiao said.

As potent as street protests reinforced by social media may be, however, their results often prove less than initially meets the eye. At Reuters, John Ruwitch and David Stanway described what became of the apparent successes of earlier PX protests:

“Previously, similar cases were reactivated without much scrutiny from the public. The public is much less organized, so when the crisis calms down it’s difficult for them to monitor what’s going on,” said Li Bo, Secretary General of the NGO Friends of Nature in China.

In several cases, what appeared at the outset to be government capitulation turned into quiet compromise. In Dalian last August, demonstrators protested against a PX plant after a typhoon damaged the facility. The government agreed to move it, but months later the plant was still running.

[…] While Xiamen turned out to be a triumph for the city’s NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) movement, the resolution there has become a familiar one. The government over a year later decided to move the facility into someone else’s backyard – in this case that of farmers in the neighboring municipality of Zhangzhou. Residents there protested sporadically, but to no effect.

In an op-ed at Tea Leaf Nation, Yueran Zhang argued that the contest between social media-backed protests and the machinery of stability preservation has trapped China in a “vicious cycle of uprising and appeasement”:

[…] @倚天照海 writes, “When some cheered for the ‘victory’, didn’t they find it lamentable? When the project was evaluated, where was the influence of public will? Where was our right to know? The cancellation of the project was also so arbitrary, without legal procedures. I would rather say it’s a victory for ‘stability preservation!’”

[…] The recent NIMBY movements are […] ultimately related to China’s stagnant political reforms. @白大平 gives a vivid description of the relationship. “It’s said that the Chinese government treats its citizens as a bad babysitter treats infants: Those who cry loudest receive hugs and milk to drink. For small street protests, a little accommodation from the government; for big street protests, a lot more accommodation; no street protest, no accommodation. Whether public opinion counts totally depends on how much ‘trouble’ protesters cause. This is the logic of governance for certain officials. The priority of the political reform project should be to abandon a system that encourages people to protect their rights by taking to the streets and ‘crying out loud.’ We should construct an institutionalized system to absorb public opinion, making it something more than just a rubber stamp.”

Without a firm institutional foundation, government concessions tend to be no more than populist sops, and can be revoked as soon as the protesters have dispersed and the microbloggers have moved on. Moreover, even short-lived victories are only won in the few cases which attract widespread attention. The contrast between two recent forced demolition cases illustrates this limitation. In one, featured in recent cartoons posted at China Media Project and at CDT, a popular musician won an apparent reprieve for his father-in-law’s home after appealing to his more than 710,000 weibo followers. From Yuan Xiaoyi and Liu Sha at Global Times:

The posts by Zuoxiaozuzhou had been reposted almost 37,000 times by late Monday. Many Web users responded online with angry, pointed comments aimed at local officials, while some said the singer used fame to get his way.

The district wants the land for the construction of a subway train rail yard and maintenance station. Local officials told Xinhua that if construction is slowed because an agreement with the family cannot be reached, they will build around Bian’s house.

Some netizens said Zuoxiaozuzhou is much luckier than ordinary people who do not have hundreds of thousands of followers to turn to for backup.

In most cases, indeed, popular attention arrives too late if at all. At chinaSMACK, Katy Koyich translated two versions of one such story. One account, from Xinhua, stated that a Hunan villager named Shi Ganming had been driven to self immolation by the illegal demolition of his home. According to a recent report from Amnesty International, forced demolitions led to 41 self immolation protests in China between 2009 and 2011. But online rumours suggested that the truth was even worse.

Xiangtan city report, the news about Xiangtan demolition and relocation personnel setting a homeowner to be relocated on fire is an incident of the builder acting on their own to tear down the [victim’s] home causing the villager to set himself on fire. In order to get the engineering/construction project and without obtaining the permission of the relevant departments, Zhongtian Company project manager Qiang Yuqing and Xiangtan city Baota Street Yunfeng neighborhood villager Feng Changsheng (village party secretary’s brother) directly caused this villager Shi Ganming’s self-immolation.

@浣铁军: Demolishing and relocation – The blood curdling shrieks of a living person set on fire! Ripping apart the hearts of every Chinese person: The wretched sight of a living person being set of fire pierces the clear eyes of every Chinese person! Yet another elderly person burned like charcoal and close to death lies in the hospital! On October 14th, in the Yunfeng neighborhood of Xiangtang City, Hunan Province, and as a result of demolition and relocation talks that have been continuously failed, those responsible for the demolition recruited members of the criminal underworld to inhumanly beat up and then set on fire a nearly 60-year-old elderly man. The blood curdling shrieks of a living person set on fire! Ripping apart the hearts of every Chinese person!