When I first arrived in China in 2007, the attitude of many of my Chinese friends was that the system was broken, but there was absolutely nothing they could do to fix it. I clearly remember chatting with a professor in Longzhou. He said, “They talk a lot about a ‘harmonious society’ but what the hell does that mean? The price of everything is going up and things are getting worse. I don’t care about ‘harmony’ I care about actually having a good life.”
At that time I was surprised to hear people openly complain about their situation, and was bothered by their sense of hopelessness. Now though people are far more willing to vent their frustration, not only with foreigners (who are seen as a safe choice for venting), but also online.
Initially I was skeptical that anything would change as a result of messages on Weibo. Four years later, I am continually surprised at what can be accomplished by netizens.
This of course is not to say that China has been democratized, stories are still scrubbed from the forums, and many movements are deemed a threat to social harmony. However, I believe that we are seeing the next step being taken in public participation of government decisions.
The most recent example of this started back in the first week of October, when Beijing was draped in a smog that friends on Twitter described as “apocalyptic”. When a foreign doctor commented on the health risks associated with such pollution, Global Times responded by saying it wasn’t that bad (read more in my post: An incredible lack of integrity). In short their argument was that the time was not yet right for Beijing to measure PM2.5, which are more harmful particles than what had been previously measured.
After a sustained campaign by citizens, roughly one month later, Beijing has acceded to higher air quality standards, and even The People’s Daily has taken a very different tune.
“The country now only reports air quality based on readings of PM10, particulate matter smaller than 10 microns, which is why monitoring results do not match people’s sense of pollution.
Zhang Lijun, vice-minister of environmental protection, said that Chinese cities are facing severe air pollution.”
In the last few months we have seen several effective environmental protests that have led to meaningful results, most of which started online. It is wonderful to see Chinese standing up to polluting factories, and that local governments are now being pushed to heed their demands is the result of an increased focus on the environment that started in the Central Government.
Once netizens get the taste for flesh and blood activism, we could see movements call for something more daring than the shuttering of dangerous polluters, perhaps something like freeing a blind lawyer and his family in Shandong province.