Protests in China Get a Boost From Social Media

Chinese microbloggers organize to protest
Police stand guard during a protest against the proposed expansion of a petrochemical factory in Ningbo, China, Oct. 28, 2012 Photograph by Ng Han Guan/AP Photo

“We want to survive,” read signs carried by the hundreds of protestors who thronged the streets of Ningbo, a southeastern Chinese coastal city, from Friday through Sunday. Their demand: that the local government scrap plans for an $8.9 billion expansion of a petrochemical plant to be operated by a subsidiary of state-run oil giant Sinopec. By Sunday the authorities had promised “resolutely not to go ahead with the PX project,” according to a statement published on the local Zhenhai district government website and printed in the Ningbo Daily.

The city of Ningbo—a prosperous port of 3.4 million people, near Shanghai—is hardly one of China’s cancer villages, of the kind contributing to the thousands of pollution-related protests that happen each year in China. And the mostly middle-class protestors were not rising up because of past harms, but for fear of the future—and because, through social media, smartphones, and the Internet, they had gained information about the government’s plans and also about the potential health risks should the planned facility to manufacture the chemical paraxylene, or PX (used in the making of polyester), leak toxins into surrounding rivers and coastal waters.

One protestor, whose Weibo (a Chinese micro-blog) account lists his name as Liu Jimi, wrote online of another region in Zhejiang province that he believes has been contaminated by chemical factories. Liu holds this up as a cautionary tale of what he doesn’t want to happen in his hometown: “Outside the Zhoushan fishing zone, which once was rich in seafood, now there is nothing. The sick people are diagnosed more and more frequently with cancer, and many people can smell the filth in the water as they fall asleep. But now the government wants to build more chemical plants near us [in Ningbo], as the taxes brought in through various other private industries seem not to satisfy them.”

Leaks of dangerous toxins from such plants are not inevitable. But with hurried construction, minimal oversight, frequently cut corners, and rampant corruption, infrastructure projects in China, large and small, are subject to various pitfalls. All too often factory storage tanks leak, waste products are illegally discharged into rivers, and equipment designed to filter water or scrub smokestacks is powered off to trim electricity costs. “There is very little public confidence in the government,” one 24-year-old protester in Ningbo told the Associated Press on Sunday.

In the past 15 months, similar protests against large chemical plants have taken place in other big Chinese cities: In the northeastern port of Dalian, an estimated 12,000 people packed the central People’s Square one Sunday in August 2011 to demand that a PX plant located near the coast—and presumably vulnerable in the event of a typhoon grazing the shore—be shuttered and relocated. This summer, hundreds of protesters in the central Chinese city of Shifang demonstrated against the construction of a copper plant, partly due to fears that the earthquake-prone region was an unsuitable location. Earlier this month, residents of a town on the southern island of Hainan, sometimes known as “China’s Hawaii,” protested a proposed coal-fired power plant.

The results of these protests are mixed: Officials in Dalian pledged to shut down the PX plant, but local reports say operations were later resumed. In Shifang, construction on the new copper plant was stopped. In Ningbo, protests continued even after the authorities pledged to halt the PX project, in part because suspicion of the government runs so high. “We don’t trust them at all; we think [their promise] is a stalling tactic,” as one 30-year-old protester in Ningbo wrote in an e-mail to Bloomberg Businessweek on Monday. “We’ll still keep our eyes on them.”

In summing up his concerns and those of other protestors, he added: “It is said that this project would bring a large increase in GDP—which may be a good thing for the city. But we believe it will pollute the soil we live on, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. We’d just love to have a clean place to live and to preserve it for the later generations. We aren’t so concerned about how much money the project brings because we are already satisfied with the current economic situation. We don’t trust the treatment techniques to reduce emissions or the official ‘assessment’ of the pollution impact.”

The Beijing-based environmentalist Ma Jun, honored earlier this year with the internationally prestigious Goldman Prize, sees it as no coincidence that the frequency of middle-class protests in China’s more prosperous cities has increased alongside the use of social media. “Social media is a game changer,” he says. “People can educate themselves and share information.” The marches in Ningbo, Shifang, and Dalian were all organized largely through micro-blogs, smartphone apps, and text messages. (After clashes with police turned violent, the function to upload photos to Weibo was recently blocked in the Ningbo area.)

“The next leadership of China is going to face a challenge on these environmental issues, which the previous leadership had not seen so strongly for 30 years,” says Ma. He has seen some positive signs: “For the first time, some local officials have begun to call us to learn more about how these situations are handled in other countries—they really worry about becoming the next protest targets.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.