When the number of dead pigs over Huangpu River reached 6,000 a few days ago, I tweeted, puzzled by the lack of public outcry in Shanghai, “Shanghaiers, how many dead pigs do there have to be before you go to the streets to protest? Can you give us a number?” Now the number has more than doubled, and the Shanghaiers are still cool as a cucumber.
I’m not the only one who is puzzled. A Chinese tweep who also lives in the US asked the day before yesterday, “Why is there no discussion about the dead pigs? In the face of serious pollution, large protests have erupted in small cities, but in Beijing and Shanghai, there has been nothing but dead silence. Someone in Shanghai called for a mass walk, but it has come to nothing. Sure, government control is a factor, but in small cities, there is control too” (@liberty8964). He wanted to have a discussion. A Chinese journalist in Canada joined in, “Still I’m bewildered. Because of tight control? But we are talking about drinking water!” (@liangyanr)
It’s somewhat a consensus among China watchers that mass revolt in China will happen when the interest of the broad population is undercut and their lives take a considerable turn for the worse. The projected scenarios include worsening inflation, a real estate collapse, environmental pollution, etc. I also hold such a view, and that’s why I am puzzled by the total inaction in Shanghai with regard to the dead pig event that’s making international headlines and that, water quality aside, obviously poses public health risks and affects everyone in Shanghai, a city of 20 million residents.
So I asked around for opinions on Twitter and through emails. “‘Inaction’ is very normal,” replied my nephew Youfang, a system biologist living in Chicago, who went to graduate school in Shanghai and worked there for several years. “It would be extraordinary if the dead pig incident leads to large-scale street demonstrations.” He went on to give me four reasons.
“First of all, the dead pigs didn’t originate in Shanghai, but from Jiaxing, Zhejiang. The Shanghai municipal government has taken measures to pull out, and dispose of, the pig carcasses. Although the public is suspicious of the government’s claim that the ‘water quality is unaffected,’ it doesn’t have a clear target to protest against because, after all, the municipal government is not the culprit.”
Twitter user @ahrism confirmed Youfang’s view: “I spoke to my childhood friend in Shanghai who also worked in Shanghai media before, and she said, even though everyone felt sick in the stomach, but since it affected only a part of Shanghai and the municipal government seems to be doing a good job dealing with it, who do we turn against?”
Only a part of Shanghai is affected? The exiled economist @HeQinglian, whom we translated before, and another twitter user @shengzhaozhang point out that, in Shanghai, only 20% of the drinking water is taken from Huangpu River and it supplies the outlying suburbs of Songjiang, Jinshan, Fengxian and Minxing on the south side of Shanghai and the rest of the city gets its water from Yangtze River.
Ms. He also points out the difference between the struggle of an individual family whose property is being demolished, or a village for that matter such as Wukan, and that of a large metropolitan area. “Shanghaiers’ inaction in the dead pig event can be explained with ‘the logic of collective action’ as explained by the American economist Mancur Olson in his book The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups in 1965.” Instead of being the driver, everybody wants to take a ride with it.
While in smaller cities people can come together to protest against pollution, @fightcensorship and I agreed, it is considerably harder, if not outright impossible for that to happen in big metropolitan areas, given that people living in large cities lack the kind of close ties existing in a village or a community in small cities, and, without modern forms of organization, which the Party fears the most and clamps down on the hardest, it’s inconceivable for residents in large cities like Shanghai to take collective actions.
“The second reason,” my nephew continues, “has to do with the timing of the event. It occurred during the Two Meetings. In a sensitive time like this, media coverage on ‘bad news’ is minimal and probably not telling the whole truth either.”
Government control on media coverage of the incident is confirmed by an edict (Chinese) issued by the Party’s propaganda department that singled out two Shanghai media outlets Dongfang Daily (《东方早报》) and Dragon TV (东方卫视) for “hyping” the dead pig event over Huangpu River.
“In the forbidding political environment in mainland China,” Youfang wrote, making his third point, “people have little appetite to take it to street even when they are very unhappy. Nowadays, the government takes strict, elaborate control to prevent possible eruption of mass events; anything slightly out of the ordinary would draw attention from the government, or the state security police. A couple of years ago, a young woman from my neighborhood protested in the People’s Square with a sign about something that happened to her, and she has been put under surveillance ever since. Unless under extreme circumstances, people do not want to confront the government by taking it to the streets. Meanwhile, Shanghaiers care more about making money. People talk more about real estate and money when they are together than anything else. Even when venting discontent for the government or the system, they are more resigned than indignant. Those with means would rather emigrate and leave the country.”
Radio Free Asia reported (Chinese) that Shanghai poet Pang Ting (潘婷) posted questions for Shanghai municipal government on Weibo, and her posts were repeatedly deleted. On March 14, she posted a call for mass walk on March 23, and after that post, her account was canceled altogether.
RFA also reported (Chinese) that a Shanghai lawyer and a college student requested, respectively, the municipal government to publish water information at the six water intake points and nine water plants, but we have not heard any follow-up news on that.
“Finally,” Youfang wrote, “many people may not even feel it’s a big deal to have dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River, and their logic goes like this: The Huangpu River is very polluted to begin with. Upstream, god knows what stuff—sewage, industrial waste and whatnot—has been discharged into the river, several thousand dead pigs probably wouldn’t make it much worse, and it will be gone after a while……”
“In China,” Youfang continues, “the public is misled in many of their ideas. For example, the Chinese public cries out loud about GMO foods but remains indifferent to air and water pollutions. In any case, most Chinese care only about themselves and their own businesses, and have little regard for the interest of the greater population. But over the last few years, I have seen many good changes through social media, though it takes time, perhaps several generations, to change the character of a people.”
As I was wrapping up this post, a Twitter user (@wayinfinite) joined the conversation, saying “Nobody beats Shanghaiers in putting up with things. If Shanghaiers ever go on the street, that would be big, bigger than Beijingers taking to the street, so big it will change the regime. When Shanghaiers cannot bear it anymore, that would mean no one in China can bear it anymore.”
“Oh really,” I hit the “reply” button, “I’m going to take a nap now. Wake me up when Shanghai sinks to the bottom of the sea.”