Saturday, August 04, 2012

'Occupy' with Chinese characteristics

My most recent piece for Asia Times.  This article can be reposted if Asia Times Online is acknowledged and a link is provided to AT.

'Occupy' with Chinese characteristics
By Peter Lee

One of life's many ironies is that the Occupy model of disobedient activism has racked up more successes in the land ruled by that poster child of remorseless authoritarianism, the Chinese Communist Party, than it has in the United States.

US Occupy activists were quickly and efficiently shoveled into the "dirty dreamy disorderly hippie radical" box by political, economic, and media elites eager to make the world safe for income inequality. For their part, the activists - very much like the 1989 protesters in China - were all too eager to occupy the morally (and, up to a point, physically) safer high ground of non-violent civil disobedience.

Passive petitioning resulted in little more than littered, smelly encampments in public parks and a fatal loss of interest and support from the US public.

Things are different in China.

Popular occupation of government offices in the Guangdong village of Wukan in response to the real-estate depredations of the local powerbrokers was a thrilling demonstration of people power.

The China-occupy model spread with successful actions against the township government of Shifang in Sichuan province over a copper smelting project and, most recently, in the seaside Jiangsu town of Qidong, where locals stormed the township government building to stop a wastewater pipeline.

A most interesting and important element of the Shifang and Qidong actions is the prominence of a confrontational vanguard of young people - high school students and twenty-somethings (collectively known as "after 80s" and "after 90s" for their birth years) who appear quite happy to mix it up violently with the cops and cadres.

It appears that a new generation is less interested in recapitulating the experience of 1989 and the Tiananmen Square protests than redefining it, or even discarding it.

That creates a new challenge for foreign observers of China, especially those who continue to view Chinese dissidents primarily through the prism of 1989, with a vision of nobly (and Nobel-y) passively suffering, democracy worshipping, and US-adoring dissidents that sometimes verges on patronizing condescension.

China's "post-1980s" and "post-1990s" generations grew up after the Communist Party settled on the formula of modulated political repression and explosive economic growth enshrined in the term "stability."

That's a dispensation that many members of the "post-1980s" and "post-1990s" generations have no share in formulating, and perhaps see little need to respect, as they navigate their way through the demoralizing and degrading post-socialist robber barony that is China today.

In Shifang, activists among a crowd of several thousand attempted to bumrush the municipal government building, but were repelled in a police action that turned into something of a police riot. The result was dozens of serious injuries inflicted on agitators, demonstrators, and hapless bystanders alike, and a marked swing in national popular sympathy toward the demonstrators.

Qidong provided an alternate vision of how Shifang might have turned out.

Asahi Shimbun's Atsushi Okudera reported from Qidong:
About 5,000 people filled the streets in central Qidong before 6 a.m., when the rally began. The protesters began chanting, "Protect the environment" against the dangers posed by a plan for a drainage pipeline into local waters.

But less than 10 minutes later, the crowd broke through a row of police officers blocking the main street and started marching toward the city government building 1 kilometer away. The demonstrators became louder after they reached the building.

Several minutes later, they pulled down the steel gate and swarmed over the premises.

About 2,000 occupied the inner courtyard, several thousand on the street in front of the city government building and many others in nearby structures overlooking the building, bringing the total of protesters to more than 10,000. [1]
The cops did not make a concerted effort to protect the municipal building (although they did engage in some arresting and headcracking - as well as pummeling Atsushi Okuderu and seizing his camera - later on).

Demonstrators rushed in and trashed several offices, flinging objects and documents out the windows. Their trophies of anti-authoritarian triumph - a publicly displayed stash of liquor and condoms - created less of an impression than photos of overturned police cars and the spectacle of the party secretary of Qidong, Sun Jianhua, smiling sheepishly after demonstrators tried to strip him in the street and forcibly clothe him in pro-environmentalist t-shirt. [2]

"Rampaging young people" evokes the trauma of the Cultural Revolution for the older, better-educated, and more thoughtful Chinese citizen.

For Western observers, the analog is the Arab Spring, an outpouring of youthful anger and a yearning for dignity and agency that counts respect for liberal democracy and free enterprise - and the elites that profit from them - a distant second.

The incident in Qidong offers an insight into the dynamics of political activism in China - and also hints that the Communist Party hasn't quite figured out what to do about it.

The wastewater pipeline had attracted unfavorable attention in Qidong since it was announced in 2009.

The pipeline is a core component of a massive paper project in the special economic zone of Nantong City (the political jurisdiction encompassing Qidong) near Shanghai. Instead of dumping the effluent into the nearby Yangtze River, the decision was made to build a 112-kilometer pipeline to dump the wastewater into the Yellow Sea at Qidong's ocean port of Lusi.

Lusi is one of China's four major fishing ports and is near an important fishing ground. With the construction of the bridge-and-tunnel project from Shanghai across Chongming Island to the Yangtze's north shore, the Qidong coast is now only an hours' drive from Shanghai and is turning into something like China's Cape Cod - a beachside getaway (with traffic jams) for affluent city dwellers yearning for the bracing sea air and the famous local clams.

Environmental degradation is emphatically not on the menu, and it appears that the pipeline project inspired a significant amount of local unease.

It was promised that the pipeline would deliver wastewater of the modern, well-mannered sort from a greenfield plant with world-class environmental controls - the pipeline was called "The project for expelling water that has met applicable standards into the sea" - but locals were understandably skeptical.

The pulp plant going up alongside the paper mill would be enormous - at a capacity of 700,000 tonnes per year. The amount of wastewater sloshed into the pipeline would be even more enormous - dozens of tonnes of water for every tonne of pulp produced, for a daily flow of 150,000 tonnes.

If the effluent was so safe, people asked, why not dump it into the Yangtze instead of spending tens of millions of yuan to pipe it to the coast at Qidong? (It appears that the pipeline is meant to bypass a key reservoir in the Shanghai drinking water system on the Yangtze downstream of Nantong.)

Public suspicion was exacerbated by the concern that other Nantong industries might eventually piggyback their waste on the pipeline, dumping who-knows-what - perhaps after a festival of corrupt permitting - into Qidong's local waters.

Government assurances apparently did little to mollify citizens of Qidong who were uneasy with the project, or discourage activists looking to push the issue. Opposition in Qidong was undoubtedly energized by the example of Shifang. 

Activism was couched in the politically privileged and crowd pleasing term of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) environmental activism. Activists used social media and carefully prepared educational and propaganda materials to organize a mass demonstration. Again, high school students were in the vanguard.

The local government refused a permit for the demonstration but quickly announced that the project was "on hold". This standard leaf from the dissent-sidelining playbook of both authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies was brushed aside by the demonstrators.

The demonstration went on as planned on July 28 before the municipal government offices, and then morphed into confrontation and occupation as some activists went in and trashed the place, followed by hundreds of demonstrators who subsequently filled the balconies surrounding the structure.

Given the abjectly conciliatory performance of the government, party, and security officials in Qidong during the ruckus, one can infer that the occupation was planned ahead of time by at least some activists, and was not an outburst of spontaneous indignation against unendurable establishment excesses or insolence during the demonstrations.

The Nantong City government followed the precedent of the Shifang government and capitulated promptly. The announcement posted on the Qidong municipal website on July 28, the same day as the demonstrations, stated:
After careful considerations, the Nantong City Government has decided to halt the implementation of the Nantong Large-Scale Project for Expelling Standards-Meeting Water into the Sea in Qidong. [3]
An electronic billboard in Qidong displayed a less nuanced, more crowd-pleasing message on the same day, even as demonstrators were gathered in the city center:
After careful consideration, the Nantong City Government has decided to cancel this project for ever.
However, the people power message has been muddied by a number of factors.

First of all, there was a suspicion that the government's low-key response did not represent an outbreak of democratic reasonableness. Perhaps risk-averse government officials were in a state of temporary politically induced paralysis brought on by the impending leadership transition in the central government and the perceived need not to make any controversial moves until it was clear what leaders and what policies would have the upper hand.

Once clear guidance and support from above materializes, in other words, offended city governments and their manhandled mayors will revert to standard operating procedure and strike back instead of turning the other cheek.

Secondly, it appears that, as a matter of tactics by both the government and the protesters, the Qidong action has become confounded with the current trend in anti-Japanese nationalism percolating through China.

Oji Paper Company of Japan is the hapless owner of the pulp and paper mega-plant in Nantong, with a total planned investment of US$2 billion. Oji Nantong is the main projected user of the pipeline (which was to be funded and constructed by the Chinese government).

The billion-dollar paper mill is already in operation using imported pulp; the pulp mill would consume Brazilian eucalyptus chips and Yangtze River water and provide pulp to the paper mill as well as the lion's share of effluent to the pipeline.

The Nantong plant is a world-scale plant (an Asian consortium has constructed a plant similar in size and operating philosophy - but no public rumpus - at the Shandong port city of Rizhao) and represents Oji's big bet on the China market (including the rocketing demand for high-end toilet tissue) and its own future. The cost savings provided by an integrated pulp and paper operation are an important factor in the profitability and perhaps even the viability of the Nantong project.

In an apparent effort to deflect accusations of anti-government and anti-party activism, the demonstrators framed their protests in terms of blocking Oji's plans to sully the pristine coastal waters of Qidong.

Pre-printed placards declared: Stop Oji; Protect Our Homes and Gardens.

For its part, the state media was also happy to characterize the protests as "anti-Oji", gliding past the awkward part of the story where hundreds of demonstrators occupied and trashed a local government headquarters in a calculated expression of anti-regime anger.

The decision to hang the Qidong albatross around Japan's neck was undoubtedly made easier by the prevailing atmosphere of Sino-Japanese tension brought about by renewed confrontation over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands.

In the echo chamber of China's Internet, crude anti-Japanese sentiments became something that both pro- and anti-government posters could all agree on, and calls went out for a boycott of Oji's popular Nepia toilet paper.

After the furor dies down, Nantong City may very well try to resuscitate the pipeline project in a different form. The official announcement that implementation "in Qidong" would be terminated leaves open the possibility that the government will find a new way and/or new place to make it work.

The central government, mindful of the damage done to the PRC's reputation as an investment destination if a billion-dollar foreign-funded project can be undone in one weekend by a few thousand demonstrators, will probably also search for a way to protect Oji's interests in Nantong.

Judging by its July 30 press release, Oji is anxiously hopeful:
The Nantong municipal government has indicated that the current plan to build a pipeline to the sea via Qidong may be permanently shelved. We are investigating the impact this could have on our project to build a paper plant in the province and will announce our conclusions as soon as we reach them. [4]
However, the lethal combination of Japanese investment, environmental fears, and the precedent of government capitulation would seem to provide a gigantic and irresistible target for political activists if there was an attempt to revive the pipeline project in any form.

For the Chinese government, in the wake of Shifang and Qidong, the key issue is not how to placate victims of government misbehavior and environmental abuse; it is how to handle local unrest when it involves projects that haven't even started yet, and is driven by educated, alienated, and ever more proficient, confident, and militant young activists who are always looking for ways to push the regime's buttons and are never content to take "Yes" for an answer.

If similar local protests with student/citizen synergies continue to ignite, and Occupy China shows signs of becoming a nationwide trend, the Chinese Communist Party will be forced to contemplate some interesting and unpleasant alternatives.

And it may not have the luxury of waiting until after the leadership transition to make some decisions.

1. Nervous Chinese officials caving into massive protests, Asahi Shimbun, Jul 29, 2012.
2. Qidong NIMBY protest that occupied the local government and stripped a mayor may mark a new era of grassroots activism in China, Offbeat China, Jul 28, 2012.
3. Click Here for original text (in Chinese).
4. Impact of Opposition to Wastewater Pipeline in Qidong, China, Oji Paper Group, July 30, 2012.

1 comment:

AuthorHouse said...

Wow, nice post, there are many people searching about that now they will surely find your post quite interesting. Thank you for sharing this with us. iUniverse