7:02 PM (23 hours ago)
On 28 July most mainstream media’s top stories were about the London Olympic’s Opening Ceremony. The residents of Qidong had something much more exciting to pay attention to: a 50,000-strong anti-pollution demonstration electrified this medium-sized city (pop. 1.1 million); its municipal government building was occupied by thousands of angry protesters for hours.
Qidong is located on an estuary of the Yangtze River; across the way stands China’s biggest city, Shanghai. The Yangtze River Delta is one of China’s richest regions, but high speed economic development has come at the cost of severe environmental destruction. For example, more than half of coastal areas in Jiangsu province (where Qidong is located) are categorised as “seriously polluted zones” by the Ocean and Fishery Bureau. The main source of pollution is the industrial wastewater illegally discharged by corporations.
Oji Paper is one of the largest paper manufacturers in the world, with sales last year of $A14.6bn. The company’s paper mill at Jiangsu province is Japan’s largest ever industrial investment in China. The proposed pipe project would compound the region’s pollution problems immensely, discharging hundreds of thousands of tons of wastewater into the sea.
In order to stop this disastrous project, small-scale protests had been occurring since June, but were suppressed by the local government with various means. When China’s summer school holiday began in July, many students in Qidong decided to help build a bigger protest movement. They used social media to spread the information, but also produced many leaflets “To the people of Qidong” and distributed them in shopping centres and other public spaces. The courage and wisdom of these young people were the most important factors for achieving the successful mass demonstration.
The gathering begins
As early as six o’clock in the morning, crowd of young people started gathering at a central square only a couple of blocks away from the municipal building. They were protesting against Japanese company Oji Paper’s plans to build a wastewater pipe that would have disastrous environmental consequences for the town. Many of the demonstrators were of high school age, but their well made placards and t-shirts indicated this was a well-organised action. When the number of protesters had reached several thousand, they formed orderly contingents and began to march towards the government building.
Big banners of petition with countless signatures were carried in the middle of the column, saying “Resolutely Resist Oji Paper Discharging Wastewater at Qidong”. Organisers equipped with megaphones led the chanting: “Opposing Oji Paper, defending our home!” A teenage woman, holding an anti-pollution t-shirt with her mother, marched proudly in the front of the contingent. More people arrived. The demonstration was growing like a rolling snowball.
People were taking photos from the roadsides and posting them online. Within hours, the news of Qidong had spread like a wild fire nationally. Temperatures were high and angry fists rose to the sky, accompanied by deafening slogans. Some shops offered free bottled water and bread to the protesters as support. A 70-year-old woman reproached the cops: “These kids are doing the right thing, don’t disrupt them.” Most of the police personnel who arrived in the morning were local residents, whose families would be affected by the pollution as much as the protesters, so they generally sympathised with the cause. Moreover, they were heavily outnumbered so could not stop the protesters anyway!
Outside the municipal building, the protesters demanded that the government stop Oji Paper from building industrial wastewater pipes. The officials rejected the demand with the excuse that the government would have to pay a great amount of compensation to the company if they cancelled the project. The response enraged the crowd and thousands of protesters stormed the building. They surrounded the party secretary (the highest government official in a city) and asked him to wear an anti-pollution T-shirt. On his refusal the protesters stripped him naked and chased him around.
Large quantities of poker cards, condoms, expensive cigarettes and imported wine were found in those officials’ offices. These things were displayed on the roadside as evidence of government corruption. The occupation had an immediate impact: the mayor of Qidong issued a statement before noon, announcing that the hated project would be scrapped.
A subterranean fire
The Qidong protest is not an isolated incident. It was in part inspired by a three-day uprising in Shifang (in Sichuan province, Southwest China) only four weeks ago. The rebellion was brutally suppressed by police, who used stun grenades against children and students, but it forced the local government to give up plans to build a molybdenum copper smelter. The protesters in Shifang were in turn encouraged by a 100,000-strong demonstration in Dalian (in Liaoning province, Northeast China) last year, which compelled the local government to promise to move a chemical plant. There are also many small scale environmental protests in other regions, showing that China’s environmental crises have become devastating.
For most workers, peasants and urban poor – who can neither access specially-supplied food like the government officials, nor send their families to Australia or America like the capitalist class – the only option is militant struggle. And the case of Qidong once again demonstrates that ordinary people can defeat the state machine and big corporations if they carry out a determined fight.
From Dalian to Shifang, then to Qidong, young people dominated. They used social media to organise their actions, their enthusiasm to agitate the masses and their bodies to fight the cops. Many of them were born after 1989, but they have inherited the spirit of Tiananmen Square. Such a generation of youth are not only active in environmental struggles, but also in the strikes taking place in the factories of Pearl River Delta, in the land rights uprisings occurring in the villages of Guangdong, in the battles against police brutality that occur in every city on a daily basis.
Three decades of neoliberal economic policy has created a very polarized society in China. Young people from working class or peasant backgrounds cannot access educational resources equally because the rich can buy their children places at the better schools and universities. They also find it hard to get well paid jobs after graduation, and buying a house on their own is almost a pipe dream. Now the increasingly serious environmental problems have made clean air and drinking water luxuries as well.
Thus these young people have nothing to lose but their chains. Many of them have witnessed the miserable circumstances of their parents, often laid-off workers of state-owned enterprises or migrant workers from the countryside, and refuse to accept the same life. At the same time, the sons and daughters of the capitalist class and middle class are studying in Western countries, taking management positions in their parents’ polluting enterprises or writing “balanced” articles to condemn both “the incompetent government” and “the violent populist mobs” taking part in protests. Young people from working class or peasant backgrounds, just like their contemporaries in the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe, are the main force behind China’s current social movements.
On the other hand, China’s ruling class is experiencing an internal crisis as well. The end of this year is supposed to mark a power transition at the top. The recent sacking of Politburo member and party power broker Bo Xilai, and the subsequent arrest of his wife, has revealed the serious dissension and antagonism among the ruling circle, which weakens their capacity for social control.
Nor is the repressive apparatus of the state functioning very well. Take the police force as an example: even though China spends more money on its security apparatus than on its military, it could not give all the members of its police force reasonable payments to buy their loyalty to the regime. The local governments largely rely on contracted cops and Chengguan (city inspectors) to put down small scale rebellions. But these people won’t risk their lives to suppress massive protests or riots for their shitty salaries. Thus more frequently the authorities have to deploy the militarised Armed Police Mobile Divisions (total strength is about 140,000) to put down unrest.
Nevertheless, the regime as a whole will not collapse easily. As in Dalian and Shifang, the protesters of Qidong were dispersed quickly after two Mobile Divisions arrived in the afternoon. There is no way to ensure that the local government will fulfil its promise, nor any guarantee that the protesters won’t be prosecuted later. So what’s needed desperately is a coordinating body which could agitate among all the cities in the Yangtze River Delta to carry out protest actions simultaneously, link all the strikers in the Pearl River Delta together to form a regional strike committee, unite all the radical youth, from Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to Shanghai, and equip them with clear class struggle politics. In other words, China’s youth and workers need a working class revolutionary party!
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