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Shifang: Citizens Choose Clean Environment over Promise of Jobs

November 30, 2012

Officials in the ancient town of Shifang, in Sichuan Province, could never have imagined that their launch party would have turned out so badly. But then they only had themselves to blame when they quietly approved a US$1.6 billion molybdenum-copper alloy factory, not thinking it necessary to inform citizens about the plan or to have any public discussion.

Things took a sharp turn for the worse that day, June 29, 2012, however, when some local citizens stumbled across a gala celebration. Attracted by the excitement, curious citizens tried to edge closer for a better look, but were held back by security. However, one didn’t need to be too close to spot the name Sichuan Hongda and large white characters proclaiming “Launch Ceremony” towering over long rows of smiling senior government and company officials.

Local officials later claimed the plant, to be built by Shanghai-listed Sichuan Hongda, one of China’s biggest producers of zinc ingots and chemicals, would give the city’s ailing economy a shot in the arm, provide new jobs, and help it recover from the severe damage caused by the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Villagers were not convinced. They worried about the potential pollution and health problems the chemical plant might bring to the town of 430,000 people.

The news, and fears about environmental pollution, quickly spread throughout the community.

The next day, June 30, residents petitioned the government asking that the project be shut down. On July 1, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in front of government offices, going head-to-head with police and SWAT teams in what turned into three days of sometimes violent protests.

On July 2, the government responded on its web site with a curt  open letter accusing people of having “ulterior motives” and of being manipulated by unnamed  “paper tigers” that were trying to undermine China.

Villagers no doubt knew they would have to spread the news further than their own village, and here is where the event took an interesting direction. Internet savvy middle school students, known as the post 90s generation sprang into action, using the skills they’d honed for years simply chatting with friends to spread news of the protest.

"We launched several chat rooms on the Internet and called on more students to take part from the very beginning," Gao Yang, a 16-year-old student who joined the protest along with his classmates, told the state-run Global Times.

Nor were they confined to the Internet. These students also resorted to old-fashioned techniques of protest. They handed out flyers and made protest signs and t-shirts. Hundreds of them were at the city hall to protest on the night of July 1. And the next day when schools threatened the students with expulsion, they were not intimidated. Hundreds turned up with their parents to protest once again. Of the some 20 people detained by the police in Shifang, most were students, said protesters. After villagers learned of the detention of students, thousands lined up outside local government offices urging their release.

One photo on a blog showed a large poster on the street that proclaimed: “We can sacrifice ourselves. We’re the post-90s generation.”

The movement got an unexpected boost when well-known Chinese writers and bloggers joined the fray, including famed writer Han Han, who has more followers than any other blogger in the entire world, acerbic commentator Li Chengpeng and legal scholar Xiao Han, their sharp writing attracting even greater attention.

These young students did well. By July 3, the Shifang protests had become the most-searched term on the popular Sina Weibo, a microblogging service like Twitter, despite efforts by the authorities to delete postings. A search of the Internet for that day showed photos of angry crowds amidst clouds of tear gas, citizens prostrate on the ground begging the SWAT teams to leave, club-wielding police chasing protesters down the street, and scenes of men, women and even small children bleeding. One photo showed a young police officer sneering as he gave a foreign photographer his middle finger.

The shocking photos, videos and reports struck a sympathetic chord among Chinese across the country at a time of increasing concern about environmental problems. Netizens around China immediately began to re-post news of the incident, along with their own supportive comments. Soon foreign journalists were turning up in the small town, and news of the protest in Shifang was now being reported around the world.

For some reason, the postings, photos and videos were not deleted by government censors, as has happened in other recent incidents. Experts speculate the government may have wanted to allow citizens to have a way to let off steam. And that’s what they did.

This turned out to be a tactical mistake. According to the China Media Project (CMP), between July 1 and July 4, some 5.25 million posts on Sina Weibo contained the word “Shifang”. Among these, 400,000 included images and almost 10,000 included video. Searching the same period a year earlier, CMP found a total of just 300 posts with the word “Shifang” on Sina Weibo.

With the eyes of the world on Shifang, the embattled government caved in. In the afternoon of July 3, just four days after the launch, officials in Shifang posted a statement on the city’s Weibo.

"This project has been suspended,” Shifang Party Secretary Li Chengjin said. “Shifang henceforth will not build this project,"

The decision, he concluded, was made in response to public concerns. In October, Li was demoted.