The Council on Foreign Relations’ Elizabeth Economy sees Sunday’s mass protests in Dalian as an encouraging sign that “once again civil society has emerged at the forefront of a push for political change.”
The real significance of the protest, however, is far greater than simply another demonstration of the political potency of mass protest in China. Indeed, an editorial in China’s Global Times warns against considering Dalian simply as a “victory of a ‘protest.” Rather—and this is my interpretation—it is another symbol of how Chinese citizen activism—whether through organized non-governmental organizations, Internet campaigns, running as independent candidacies in local district congress elections, or demonstrations such as that in Dalian—has become a leading source of political evolution in China.
It is important—if often painful—to think about political change in China in the context of the intentions, capacity, resilience, and fate of the larger-than-life political figures, such as Wen Jiabao, Ai Weiwei, and Liu Xiaobo. At the same time, the Dalian protest reminds us that it is equally important to focus on the evolving intentions, capacity, resilience, and fate of the broader Chinese citizenry. China may well be in the midst of a reform movement born of the masses. The Global Times suggests that the Dalian demonstrations and their aftermath are a sign that “Both the public and the government have begun adapting both their language and actions to a more democratic time.” Let’s hope the Global Times is on to something.
Jamil Anderlini, meanwhile, argues at the Financial Times that the response to the protests betrays official nervousness at escalating unrest, which may be linked to the very economic growth by which authorities have hoped to placate the disenfranchised public:
… [Now] that most of Dalian’s citizens have enough to eat, they can afford to worry about their children being poisoned …. This trend is borne out across China: greater wealth has empowered people to take a stronger stand for their rights.
In the first of a three-part series providing background on Dalian at The China Beat, Meg Rithmire similarly notes that the protests arose from a state of relative privilege:
… [It] is striking that the largest protests to break out in Dalian since 1989, the ones that exploded last weekend, would concern an environmental issue: the main aim of demonstrators was to force the closure of a chemical plant. And it is notable as well that protests did not occur when two of Dalian’s northern neighbors experienced incidents associated with pollution and toxic spills. Nearby Harbin (whose architecture was the subject of James Carter’s recent post on this site), had to shut down the city’s water supplies for four days in 2005 as a result of a benzene spill into the Songhua River. And that spill was a result of a chemical plant explosion in Jilin City, another regional hub, which killed or injured dozens of people and resulted in a massive evacuation. But neither Harbin nor Jilin residents took to the streets six years ago.
Yet, in Dalian, middle-to-upper class residents who live in the city’s downtown area, twenty kilometers from the industrial zone in which the PX chemical plant is located, have been agitating to demand the factory’s relocation. Dalian’s economic and political trajectory since reform and opening sheds some light on why ….
… [The] PX plant protests reflect the political legacy of Dalian’s transformation. Dalian residents share a sense of entitlement to a high-quality urban environment. Many of the city’s newer residents were drawn to Dalian because of the environment, and its older residents perceive a safe and clean city as their hard-won prize from rounds of economic reforms and relocations. Protest placards with slogans like “Love Dalian, Reject Poison” underscore the centrality of the urban environment to the city’s political self-image.
A Wall Street Journal editorial, on the other hand, highlights suspicions that the protests in Dalian were not pure expressions of popular will, but were allowed to grow by one Party faction hoping to score points against another. The author argues, moreover, that the authorities’ unilateral closure of a private factory, however unpalatable its product, is no cause for celebration.
Whether Dalian’s current leadership had a political motive to let the demonstration gain momentum will probably never be known, though it was interesting to see Dalian Party Secretary Tang Jun stand on a vehicle to tell the protesters that their voices had been heard—an unusual move in itself. In the past, arrests of top Party officials (often on charges of corruption) tended to reveal more about their defeat in hidden power struggles than about the extent of their alleged crimes. More recently, the Party has developed a massive propaganda apparatus to “astroturf” social media sites with pro-government views. One needn’t be cynical about the sincerity of the demonstrators to suspect their cause was put to a cynical use.
Whatever the case, there should be no cheering the closing of a private plant via mass protest. As incomes rise in China, a higher priority is bound to be placed on environmental protection. But the way to implement that is through transparent democratic rules and consent. Democracies are better for the environment (cf. the Soviet Union) because they consider the costs of externalities like pollution. Dalian’s Party bosses may have welcomed the demonstrators as a means to advance various interests. But the ease with which property rights were trampled in this case shows just how far power in modern China remains beyond the hands of the people.
On the Journal’s China Real Time blog, Russell Leigh Moses considers lessons from the protests and ensuing plant closure:
The first is that public resistance and activism can prompt leaders to pause, and even reverse decisions that provoke outrage. And sometimes, as in Dalian, they might move to accelerate a plan that’s already been approved. But that’s about all. The events in Dalian demonstrate that sparks do not necessarily make prairie fires. There is plenty of sympathy on social media for the protests, but no one stepped out to stage a similar standoff elsewhere in the country. Local authorities are getting a good deal of practice in confronting discontent and they have been successful at corralling it, cowing others into not participating and coercing those who might seek to emulate it elsewhere.
The second lesson from Dalian is that there is not a civil society in China: There is uncivil politics—a place where the public is simply not invited to participate in policy discussions until after the fact. Residents and netizens can protest, but they cannot propose. That may be unfortunate and debilitating to the society, and even authoritative media admit that policy-making remains unconnected and often inefficient because of that. But alternatives to the current order are in short supply.
China’s Dalian Demonstrations and a “More Democratic Time” – Asia Unbound – Council on Foreign Relations
Why China’s leaders respond to nimbyism – Financial Times
Dalian’s Past, Dalian’s Present, Part 1 – The China Beat
Dalian’s Past, Dalian’s Present, Part 2 – The China Beat
Dalian’s Past, Dalian’s Present, Part 3 – The China Beat
Review & Outlook: Dalian’s People—And Power – WSJ.com
China Environmental Protests a Victory for People Over Party? Not So Fast – China Real Time Report – WSJ