The New Epicenter of China's Discontent

On August 14, about 12,000 people gathered in Dalian in a protest organized through online social networks to demand the closure of a dangerous chemical plant. The protests succeeded, and almost immediately, authorities announced the plant would be closed. In Foreign Policy, Christina Larson gives a detailed account of the protest and the events leading up to it:

The former party boss whose tenure coincided with the project’s approval, Xia Deren, was widely despised in Dalian as corrupt and inattentive to popular will — in marked contrast with his predecessor, the charismatic and beloved Bo Xilai, who had effectively positioned himself as the people’s champion. Did some scandal involving Xia explain why the factory had landed in Dalian? In the absence of credible facts coming through the media or other official channels, dire scenarios circulated online: Contact with contaminated seawater would kill you within eight minutes; a generation of Dalian children would be born with severe deformities.

In retrospect, the sense of existential peril was a bit exaggerated. A campaigner from Greenpeace East Asia, who was not involved in organizing the protest, noted the actual potential impacts, most likely skin or eye irritation, were somewhat less than those feared. Yet there was a real risk, and the people of this otherwise safe and comfortable city had no regular, trusted channel to press the issue. And so they marched.

In this feverish context a message that spread online through social media the preceding week drew 12,000 people onto the streets. Remarkably, the people who responded to the call didn’t know who sent it. Without knowing the leader or whether he or she could be personally trusted, they came — some stridently, some partly out of curiosity. They came on short notice. They came on a drizzly Sunday morning.

Cindy Xin, a plucky, fashionable accountant in her 20s, arrived at People’s Square a few minutes after 10 a.m. She had taken the bus from her home, about an hour’s ride from downtown Dalian, and came with her roommate. Neither had ever participated in a demonstration. “On my way, I kept thinking: I don’t know how many people will actually come out,” she recalls. “Will they come? Will they really come?”

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