Of the many misconceptions that outsiders hold about China, there is one that is incredibly easy to disprove: there are no protests in China.
In fact there are a lot of protests or "mass incidents" in China every day – the Wall Street Journal placed the figure at a whopping 180,000 of them in 2010. And while most of them are small, every now and then there is a very big one that draws thousands of people to the streets and the attention of the nation.
Earlier this month locals from Shifang in the southern state of Sichuan clashed with riot police over local government plans to build a copper molybdenum processing plant. There was not only anger over the perceived environmental hazards and health dangers of such a potential plant, but also over the lack of information or any consultation with the community by the local government who had already approved the project. After several days of large and occasionally violent demonstrations officials quickly caved into the protesters demands, cancelling the construction.
Shifang follows a string of recent NIMBY (not in my back yard) protests in China, some of which are highlighted in Emily Calvert's excellent analysis at China Elections and Governance of what this growing dissent over environmental issues means for the country. In it she examines the role of social media in the protests, which not only assisted in the building and organization of the demonstration within Shifang, but also pushed the story onto a national stage.
Environmentalism in China is currently a speck of a scene largely occupied by "the elite" – white collar professionals, intellectuals and students in tier one cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. But these demonstrations represent a new grassroots force made possible by social media tools such as Weibo (China's Twitter), the messenger service QQ and online forums. These protests can be characterized by how swiftly they are organized and the way they happen outside more formal structures such as unions, NGOs or political parties.
The protesters in Shifang were quick to present themselves as nothing but concerned citizens.Yet their awareness of just how to achieve this seems to indicate an encouraging shift in NIMBY protests from the past. For example, in covering the protests Reuters quoted Zeng Susen, who runs a small guest house and restaurant: "We don't oppose the government, but they must explain the risks involved in a project like this, and they didn't."
"In Shifang and other recent environmental protests we're not only simply seeing demands that a project close down or move away, but calls for openness, transparency and participation," says Greenpeace East Asia's Head of Toxics campaigner Ma Tianjie. By opening up the dialogue, Ma believes that governments and citizens can move away from a zero-sum game where you either build the project, or not. This sophistication seems to indicate that China's children are growing up and banging on the door so that they can be brought to the decision-making table.
"In other countries you can expect a detailed environmental impact report to be released well ahead of construction commencing. There might also be numerous hearings, with the community involved, and ideally given the power to veto. This is totally absent in China. By law only an abridged version of the impact assessment is required, and with so little information it's virtually irrelevant," says Ma.
And here in lies a vital problem. While the era of social media assisted environmental protests may be highly effective in bringing together large numbers of people for a swift campaign with one clear demand, how will it manage to force China to make the kind of complicated, structural change that these protesters are quickly becoming savvy enough to realize is necessary?
Monica Tan is a writer and Beijing-based web editor for Greenpeace East Asia. The views expressed in this article reflect those of Greenpeace.