On the morning of August 14, protesters began gathering outside the offices of the city government in Dalian, a seaside town in northeastern China. By mid-day, the crowd numbered in the tens of thousands, and scuffles began to break out between protestors and police. “Serve the people!” the protestors chanted, “Fujia, get out!”
This outpouring of emotion – one of the largest protests in recent years – was sparked by something that is fairly widespread in China: pollution from a local factory. The petrochemical plant in question, Fujia, had come close to being inundated with seawater during a tropical storm – an event that might have spread carcinogens throughout the region.
The conflict was swiftly resolved. Within a few hours, the government announced it had ordered Fujia to close its plant immediately and relocate. This kind of resolution was not entirely without precedent: In 2007, for example, the southern coastal city of Xiamen ousted a petrochemical plant after activists sent hundreds of thousands of text messages which prompted residents to rise up.
But far more environmental complaints have gone unheard. Even when they are heard, there is often dissatisfaction. Many victims of industrial accidents have complained that state-owned companies have refused to pay damages, even when ordered to by the courts.
Why was the incident in Dalian so different? One reason may be the deadly accident that occurred in Zhejiang province on July 23. One high-speed train smashed into another, killing 40, injuring roughly 200, and sparking widespread disgust with government corruption and cover-ups.
The accident came at a time when stability was never more vital or harder to maintain. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people can now converse online through programs like Sina Weibo and Tencent QQ. These companies employ a small army of censors to snuff out news of incidents like the Dalian protests. In recent months, however, the censors have proven unable or unwilling to fully contain any big outpouring of sentiment.
This may be forcing Chinese authorities to rethink the way they handle their interactions with the public. Five years ago, officials might have cleared protestors from Dalian’s streets and quashed any mention of the event. Given the delay in news reporting, that was once easy to do. But now censors must silence thousands of individuals who are acting like wire services, using text messages, video clips and microblogs. If just one gets into general circulation, government credibility is hobbled from the start.
At present, Beijing has chosen openness and conciliation, a laudable decision. The next months will show whether this represents a true change of heart or an ambush.