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    Greater China
     Aug 4, 2012


Page 2 of 2
'Occupy' with Chinese characteristics
By Peter Lee

Activism was couched in the politically privileged and crowd pleasing term of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) environmental activism. Activists used social media and carefully prepared educational and propaganda materials to organize a mass demonstration. Again, high school students were in the vanguard.

The local government refused a permit for the demonstration but quickly announced that the project was "on hold". This standard leaf from the dissent-sidelining playbook of both authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies was brushed aside by the demonstrators.

The demonstration went on as planned on July 28 before the

 

municipal government offices, and then morphed into confrontation and occupation as some activists went in and trashed the place, followed by hundreds of demonstrators who subsequently filled the balconies surrounding the structure.

Given the abjectly conciliatory performance of the government, party, and security officials in Qidong during the ruckus, one can infer that the occupation was planned ahead of time by at least some activists, and was not an outburst of spontaneous indignation against unendurable establishment excesses or insolence during the demonstrations.

The Nantong City government followed the precedent of the Shifang government and capitulated promptly. The announcement posted on the Qidong municipal website on July 28, the same day as the demonstrations, stated:
After careful considerations, the Nantong City Government has decided to halt the implementation of the Nantong Large-Scale Project for Expelling Standards-Meeting Water into the Sea in Qidong. [3]
An electronic billboard in Qidong displayed a less nuanced, more crowd-pleasing message on the same day, even as demonstrators were gathered in the city center:
After careful consideration, the Nantong City Government has decided to cancel this project for ever.
However, the people power message has been muddied by a number of factors.

First of all, there was a suspicion that the government's low-key response did not represent an outbreak of democratic reasonableness. Perhaps risk-averse government officials were in a state of temporary politically induced paralysis brought on by the impending leadership transition in the central government and the perceived need not to make any controversial moves until it was clear what leaders and what policies would have the upper hand.

Once clear guidance and support from above materializes, in other words, offended city governments and their manhandled mayors will revert to standard operating procedure and strike back instead of turning the other cheek.

Secondly, it appears that, as a matter of tactics by both the government and the protesters, the Qidong action has become confounded with the current trend in anti-Japanese nationalism percolating through China.

Oji Paper Company of Japan is the hapless owner of the pulp and paper mega-plant in Nantong, with a total planned investment of US$2 billion. Oji Nantong is the main projected user of the pipeline (which was to be funded and constructed by the Chinese government).

The billion-dollar paper mill is already in operation using imported pulp; the pulp mill would consume Brazilian eucalyptus chips and Yangtze River water and provide pulp to the paper mill as well as the lion's share of effluent to the pipeline.

The Nantong plant is a world-scale plant (an Asian consortium has constructed a plant similar in size and operating philosophy - but no public rumpus - at the Shandong port city of Rizhao) and represents Oji's big bet on the China market (including the rocketing demand for high-end toilet tissue) and its own future. The cost savings provided by an integrated pulp and paper operation are an important factor in the profitability and perhaps even the viability of the Nantong project.

In an apparent effort to deflect accusations of anti-government and anti-party activism, the demonstrators framed their protests in terms of blocking Oji's plans to sully the pristine coastal waters of Qidong.

Pre-printed placards declared: Stop Oji; Protect Our Homes and Gardens.

For its part, the state media was also happy to characterize the protests as "anti-Oji", gliding past the awkward part of the story where hundreds of demonstrators occupied and trashed a local government headquarters in a calculated expression of anti-regime anger.

The decision to hang the Qidong albatross around Japan's neck was undoubtedly made easier by the prevailing atmosphere of Sino-Japanese tension brought about by renewed confrontation over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands.

In the echo chamber of China's Internet, crude anti-Japanese sentiments became something that both pro- and anti-government posters could all agree on, and calls went out for a boycott of Oji's popular Nepia toilet paper.

After the furor dies down, Nantong City may very well try to resuscitate the pipeline project in a different form. The official announcement that implementation "in Qidong" would be terminated leaves open the possibility that the government will find a new way and/or new place to make it work.

The central government, mindful of the damage done to the PRC's reputation as an investment destination if a billion-dollar foreign-funded project can be undone in one weekend by a few thousand demonstrators, will probably also search for a way to protect Oji's interests in Nantong.

Judging by its July 30 press release, Oji is anxiously hopeful:
The Nantong municipal government has indicated that the current plan to build a pipeline to the sea via Qidong may be permanently shelved. We are investigating the impact this could have on our project to build a paper plant in the province and will announce our conclusions as soon as we reach them. [4]
However, the lethal combination of Japanese investment, environmental fears, and the precedent of government capitulation would seem to provide a gigantic and irresistible target for political activists if there was an attempt to revive the pipeline project in any form.

For the Chinese government, in the wake of Shifang and Qidong, the key issue is not how to placate victims of government misbehavior and environmental abuse; it is how to handle local unrest when it involves projects that haven't even started yet, and is driven by educated, alienated, and ever more proficient, confident, and militant young activists who are always looking for ways to push the regime's buttons and are never content to take "Yes" for an answer.

If similar local protests with student/citizen synergies continue to ignite, and Occupy China shows signs of becoming a nationwide trend, the Chinese Communist Party will be forced to contemplate some interesting and unpleasant alternatives.

And it may not have the luxury of waiting until after the leadership transition to make some decisions.

Notes:
1. Nervous Chinese officials caving into massive protests, Asahi Shimbun, Jul 29, 2012.
2. Qidong NIMBY protest that occupied the local government and stripped a mayor may mark a new era of grassroots activism in China, Offbeat China, Jul 28, 2012.
3. Click Here for original text (in Chinese).
4. Impact of Opposition to Wastewater Pipeline in Qidong, China, Oji Paper Group, July 30, 2012.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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