huge protests force chinese government retreat over pollution

By Adam Ford

Shifang demonstrators squaring off against riot cops earlier in the week

Locals are celebrating in the Chinese city of Shifang today, following the government’s decision to scrap its plans for a copy alloy plant which many feared would poison them. This sensational policy reversal was apparently forced out of the Communist Party dictatorship by rioting, followed by a sit-in in support of those arrested. In making this concession, the regime has shown its vulnerability at a time when the national economy is being hit by the economic crisis in Europe and the US.

The announcement itself was stark, a mere “Shifang will not build this project henceforth”. But just like the official accommodation to mass rebellion in Wukan last year, it demonstrates that the Chinese authorities are doing everything they can to avoid the flames of resistance spreading. In many under-reported cases, they will merely repress any popular uprising. But in others – perhaps those that quickly gain a national and international following – they will give away an inch for fear of losing a mile. The release of twenty-one “suspected criminals” after “receiving criticism and education and repenting for their mistakes”, would seem to confirm this analysis.

Shifang is located in Sichuan province, which was devastated by a huge 2008 earthquake. With what passes for a ‘recovery’ still very much ongoing, the jobs ‘carrot’ was dangled before the residents of Shifang, in an attempt to overcome concerns that the local water supply would be contaminated. Because of Chinese censorship, it is difficult to find a record of grassroots concerns, but Ma Jun of the liberal Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs commented that:

“Heavy metal projects are always highly polluting. Of course the public has concerns about this. The government only released the short version of the plant’s environmental report, which did not have information about the solid waste and waste water. It should have released the full version.”

On Monday and Tuesday, demonstrators tore down the door of the municipal government building, smashed windows, and threw bricks at police. In response, police unleashed barely restrained brutality, which was played out across the Chinese-language internet, as users uploaded photos and videos of battered and bleeding protesters. The Tuesday night saw a massive sit-down protest outside a government office, and it was at this point that officials agreed to back down.

The speed at which the government caved-in highlights Communist Party fears of a nationwide uprising, as the export-led economy starts to show signs of collapse. In the wake of falling orders from Europe and America, export orders are reportedly at their lowest level since March 2009 – the crest of the first crisis wave – and the purchasing managers’ index tumbled to 0.2 to 50.4 last month – only 0.5 above a mark which would indicate recession.

The dictatorship’s Shifang u-turn has perhaps bought it more time to prepare, but there seems little doubt that China will be the scene of explosive class struggles will be played out in China in the very near future.