China’s middle class protesters

A week ago China’s middle class flexed their civic action muscles by taking to the streets in their thousands (reports say up to 12,000) in the northeastern port city of Dalian to demand the relocation of a chemical plant that was in danger of leaking toxic waste.  They were well-organised: they carried posters, rehearsed snappy slogans and had special t-shirts made.

They did not want the Fujia Chemical Plant, which makes PX, a carcinogenic petrochemical, to be shut down — they just wanted the problem to be moved somewhere else.

“It’s a time bomb,” China Daily, the country’s English language state-run daily, quoted a protester named Wang as saying.

The government quickly ordered the plant be shut down and promised it would be relocated. Probably somewhere more rural where protesters don’t carry mobile phones, get protest t-shirts made and log onto Sina Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) to spread news of their action.

Chinese authorities generally show more tolerance towards middle class protesters than unrest led by minorities, migrant workers and rural residents. Indeed, the apparent success of the Dalian protests have been seen as evidence of China’s class divide: in the same week, protesters who have for years complained about discharges from a chemical plant in rural Yunnan — which was found to have dumped more than 5,000 tonnes of a known carcinogen in nearby hills and the Nanpan river — were either ignored, arrested or given small amounts of compensation.

Earlier this summer government censors were also pushed to the limit after mainstream journalists and netizens alike decried the official handling of a bullet train crash in Wenzhou. However, web censors were still busy trying to control news of the Dalian protest as participants were uploading photos online from their mobile phones.

Global Voices Online reported that posts and user accounts were deleted, and phone coverage was blocked in some of the areas occupied by the protesters in Dalian.

China Media Project also noted that the word sanbu (which means to stroll but has picked up a second meaning of protest in recent years) was blocked on Weibo searches on Sunday.