A Protest By Any Other Name

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A demonstration one week ago in Chengdu drew attention not because of its size but because of what it symbolized. A few hundred residents of the capitol of Sichuan province marched to protest a planned chemical factory. In a country with as many environmental problems as China, a single protest doesn’t make a movement. But the Chengdu organizers spoke openly about the inspiration they took from protests last year in Xiamen, which halted the construction of a chemical plant in that eastern Chinese city. Shanghai also had a similar protest in January by residents worried about the extension of a maglev train line through their neighborhood.

In fashion and journalism three makes a trend, so it is tempting to proclaim the beginning of a savvy environmental movement made up of urbanites who can work the media and avoid government strictures. They face a difficult task. Local governments want the economic benefits and tax revenues that come with a big factory. The central government, through the leadership’s concept of “scientific development,” is trying to ensure that the damaging sides of development are more equally balanced with environmental protection. At the same time Beijing is aware of how environmental movements in authoritarian states can morph into political reform movements, as with the protests over environmental disasters in the Soviet Union like Lake Baikal.

Given that sort of pressure, the Chengdu organizers took steps like calling their event a “stroll,” to get around the need for official approval for a demonstration. (China Digital Times has a translation of an interesting blog post by Beijing lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan about the significance of the phrasing.) In my conversation with one organizer he never used the words “protest” or “demonstration” and simply referred to “activity,” as if it were a school outing.

The authorities in Chengdu didn’t find it so innocuous. On Saturday the police announced that four of the protest organizers had been detained, and another two were being sought. While the jail terms they are expected to serve appear to be relatively lenient–just a matter of days–a message has clearly been sent. Not calling your protest a protest doesn’t fool anyone.