On Saturday, protestors held public demonstrations against the planned construction of a waste incineration plant near the city of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. Financial Times reported that the planned waste incineration plant would be the largest such plant in Asia, expected to process 3,000 tons of waste each day in its first phase.
Protestors reportedly numbering in the thousands joined the march against the incinerator plant, citing environmental and health concerns. Smaller protests had been occurring for weeks before Saturday’s major demonstration, which led to the protestors blocking a major highway. Police were called in to clear the road. According to protestors interviewed by Reuters, the demonstrations became violent when “hundreds of police” arrived on the scene. Protestors interviewed by by Global Times made similar comments. Chinese state media reported that 10 protestors and 29 police were injured in the incident.
Environmental protests such as the one in Hangzhou are not uncommon in China. Earlier this year, protests against a paraxylene (PX) plant in Maoming, Guangzhou also turned violent, with protestors reportedly throwing rocks and even setting police cars on fire. As with the protests near Hangzhou, photos of the protests (including images of bloody protestors clashing with police) were quickly circulated on China’s social media sites.
In both Maoming and Hangzhou, local authorities announced that they would not continue the controversial construction projects without public support.
After the Hanghzou protests, local authorities posted a list of suspects online and repeatedly used local television networks to call for the suspects to surrender. The high-profile campaign has apparently paid off — Xinhua reports that local police have arrested 60 people for “their violent and rumormongering behavior” during the protests. 53 were being held for “disturbing public order,” including throwing stones at police and police cars. The other seven were in custody for “spreading rumors” about the protest online.
The seven netizens, each given between five and 10 days’ detention for their crime, represent the latest use of a new law against spreading rumors online. Each of the netizens posted to their social media accounts the news of casualties among the protestors. “A 35-year-old woman surnamed Zhang claimed that four people died in the clash on her Twitter-like Tencent Weibo account, while others spread rumors that three people died and a three-year-old child was seized by police and died after falling from a bridge,” Xinhua said.
During and after incidents like the protests near Hangzhou and in Maoming, social media becomes a major source of information for netizens, even though almost all of this information is unverified. Censors on social media platforms already delete postings they believe cross the invisible red line, but the Hangzhou protests show local authorities are just as eager to use the newest tool at their disposal: the online rumor law. Arresting and detaining those who spread rumors online (even just by re-posting someone else’s comment or photo) sends a message to all netizens. The only way to be completely sure of avoiding a visit from security forces is to refuse to repost any information about breaking news at all — unless it comes directly from Chinese official media.