Calls for Transparency and a Free Media after Shifang

Now that the protests over a proposed molybdenum copper plant in Shifang, Sichuan have been resolved, observers are focusing on how government controls over information sparked or exacerbated the situation and on the long-term impact of such protests. For China Media Project, Qian Gang analyses online and media coverage of the Shifang protests and finds that official media were almost silent on the topic while weibo was given almost free rein. While the reasons for the unexpected lack of online censorship are not clear, Qian argues that the dynamic created as a result only hinders the development of a healthy media environment:

There’s no denying that Weibo users of all stripes have pushed to open up new space for expression. But in the case of the Shifang incident, what we saw is best described as “license” (特许).

Some have suggested that this more “open” approach to social media was quite intentional. In the run-up to the 18th National Congress it is critical for the leadership to be on guard against popular animosity toward the government. On the other hand, they must ensure tensions have an outlet lest they erupt into more destabilizing conflict.

Others have read Shifang differently. They say that what we see in the case of Shifang are different political factions struggling behind the scenes, with different ideas about how incidents like this should be handled.

Whatever the reasons, Qian Gang argues, readers suffered from a lack of free, professional reporting on the proposed plant, the protests, and the violence that resulted:

As the Shifang incident crested and fell, the public was treated to two days of information fast-food. They watched scenes of chaos and conflict. They listened to clamors of anger against the local government. They saw the government forced to back down in defeat. But through it all there was an utter dearth of real reporting, and a serious deficiency of cool-headed analysis.

Meanwhile, Caixin argues that local government officials need to work on building public trust through increased transparency when planning major new initiatives like the Shifang plant, or risk continued “Nimby” (“Not In My Backyard”) protests:

“Nimby” protests in the West have helped advance the rule of law, public administration and civic participation. In China, they could spur government and institutional reform. By paying attention to residents’ concerns, the government could be guided into its proper role as a trusted arbiter in public affairs. By showing people they are willing to respect and heed public opinion, leaders could improve their own image and gain public trust. Conversely, if the government continues to label “nimby” protesters as selfish troublemakers who ignore wider interests, we can expect to see more and more violent conflicts.

In response to protests, governments in advanced countries opt for transparency – making public details of an infrastructure project, including its location, and how it will be built and operated. Residents whose interests were hurt may also receive compensation.
In China, the conflict is usually “resolved” with an official order to halt the project or move it elsewhere. In Shifang, officials shelved the copper plant to pacify the protesters. But a more aware public may begin to demand more answers: for instance, what will become of the 10 billion yuan project? Will it be moved or scrapped? If moved, will we see another “nimby” protest? If cancelled, how should the investment loss be handled?

Will Shifang set a new paradigm for solving “nimby” conflicts? We’ll have to wait and see.

Read more about Shifang, protests, and transparency in China, via CDT. See also a full translation of the Han Han essay, “The Liberation of Shifang,” mentioned in the CMP post.