from Asia Unbound

China’s Dalian Demonstrations and a “More Democratic Time”

August 16, 2011

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Residents hold a banner among demonstrators protesting against a petrochemical plant at the People's Square in Dalian, Liaoning province on August 14, 2011. The banner reads, "Give me back my beautiful home". (Stringer/Courtesy of Reuters)

No one has pinpointed the number of protestors—observers are claiming anywhere from 12,000 (the official number) to 70,000—but it almost doesn’t matter. What does matter is that once again, the Chinese people have spoken their mind through mass protest; once again the local government has listened and (apparently) capitulated; and once again civil society has emerged at the forefront of a push for political change.

What Happened?

Over the weekend, on Sunday, August 14, a largely middle-class group of Chinese citizens organized a large-scale demonstration in the coastal city of Dalian via the Internet. They were protesting what they believed to be inadequate safeguards at a local Paraxylene (a carcinogenic benzene-based chemical referred to as "PX") factory. A protective dike around the factory had been breached by rain and high waves that resulted from the tropical storm Muifa. Residents nearby the plant were evacuated, and in the wake of the evacuation, officials reportedly began to consider relocating the factory.

However, the decision was taken away from the government by the protestors. Although the government reported that the factory had not been damaged and no chemical contamination had occurred, residents were worried about the potential for a future disaster; the chemical plant is only twenty kilometers from the center of the city. The government quickly agreed to shut down and relocate the factory. (Of course, at least one news report has noted that the factory is continuing to operate even after the government’s pledge to shut it down immediately.)

Many news reports have made analogies to a protest in 2007, further down the coast in Xiamen, where the local government, also under significant popular pressure, agreed not to site a PX factory close to the city center. There are similarities—the protesters numbered in the thousands, people communicated via the Internet and cell phones, and the type of plant was the same. In the Xiamen case, however, no plant had yet been built; the opportunity cost for the local government was significant but the actual financial loss was non-existent. In the Dalian situation, the economic losses—first from shuttering the factory and then from relocating it—will be considerable.

What It Signifies

The real significance of the protest, however, is far greater than simply another demonstration of the political potency of mass protest in China. Indeed, an editorial in China’s Global Times warns against considering Dalian simply as a “victory of a ‘protest.” Rather—and this is my interpretation—it is another symbol of how Chinese citizen activism—whether through organized non-governmental organizations, Internet campaigns, running as independent candidacies in local district congress elections, or demonstrations such as that in Dalian—has become a leading source of political evolution in China.

It is important—if often painful—to think about political change in China in the context of the intentions, capacity, resilience, and fate of the larger-than-life political figures, such as Wen Jiabao, Ai Weiwei, and Liu Xiaobo.  At the same time, the Dalian protest reminds us that it is equally important to focus on the evolving intentions, capacity, resilience, and fate of the broader Chinese citizenry. China may well be in the midst of a reform movement born of the masses. The Global Times suggests that the Dalian demonstrations and their aftermath are a sign that “Both the public and the government have begun adapting both their language and actions to a more democratic time.” Let’s hope the Global Times is on to something.

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