Why Aren’t Shanghaiers Angry? An Online Discussion
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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 ActionPublic 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.”

13 responses to “Why Aren’t Shanghaiers Angry? An Online Discussion”

  1. […] found in the Huangpu River has reached over 12,000, yet there have been no protests in Shanghai.Seeing Red in China explores why Shanghai's citizens remain calm about their polluted […]

  2. Meryl Mackay aka Mei Li says:

    Like it! I too was wondering about the lack of response to the dead pigs. As ever, thank you Yaxue.

  3. […] seeing red in China  a worth-reading post tries to answer the question why Shanghai residents are not angry and start to […]

  4. Yaxue Cao says:


    “Chinese Voices for Justice” blog has a good post about the actions some Shanghaiers are taking, and it explains to some extent why there has been a lack of actions among the general public in Shanghai. http://humanrightsinchina.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/voices-from-shanghai/

    Through apparently a new Weibo account, young poet Pan Ting (潘婷) who earlier called for a mass “stroll” at 2 pm, Saturday, March 23, wrote: “All of my communications tools have been confiscated, and I was forced to accept 24-hour surveillance, more interrogation sessions and possibly more disappearances [she was disappeared for 3 hours earlier]. But please stop ringing our door bell in the early morning or in the middle of the night anymore. My mother is scared. I will not leave Shanghai.” @https://twitter.com/wenyunchao/status/313974283892310016

    • T says:

      There may be more to this story. See http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/06/chinas-bird-flu-mystery/?hpt=hp_t4

      Somehow it makes sense to me the pigs died of swine flu and the bird flu recombined with swine flu virus to produce the deadly strain as the pig corpses floated in the Huangpu River. However the consequence of this proven true is too frightening to consider.

      If these hypothesis turn out to be correct, the only correct health response would be to quarantine air-travel to and from China immediately, which simply won’t happen given the disease is still in the 2 weeks incubation period and what such a ban would mean to the still recovering global economics and trade.

      • T says:

        Another thing to consider is my hypothesis that the millions of un-buried bodies during World War I trench warfare in the European theatres allowed dead soldiers infected with ordinary cold virus to recombine with bird flu virus to produce the deadly H1N1 flu that eventually killed 20 million people worldwide starting from 1918.

        I believe there is a reason in all cultures burial is a tradition. Exposed dead bodies are simply an evolutionary cue that the prevailing environment has changed so much that a genetic level great leap-forward needs to take place in order for the organisms to survive, so exposed dead bodies become a natural breeding ground for viruses to recombine their genetic materials with their host.

        Viruses are nothing more than strands of genetic material with a replicating interface attached that allows it to propagate easily into host cells and patch the host’s DNA much as software patches on modern computers would do to correct flaws in the host’s operating system. They cause disease when the patch goes wrong, but they are an alternative evolution path to the normal sexual reproduction which takes too long and produces too few variations in the host.
        In extreme emergencies such as sudden changes in the host environment made previously stable host DNA not viable in the new environment, a great dying of hosts ensue and dead host bodies would litter the ground with no opportunity to get buried. In that case it is imperative for the survival of the species to change its genetic code quickly to match the new environment, which means normal sexual reproductions that take years to develop are inadequate for such a purpose. In other word a Punctured Equilibrium situation described by Biologist Steven Jay Gould would take place, and the means this is carried out is through viruses.

        When viruses from different species recombine, they immediately produce drastic changes in remaining living hosts’ genetics. Most of the hosts will not survive such a change but this is secondary since the trigger of this “push the Red Button” event is that hosts were already dying by the millions. The only goal of evolution is to continue the virus recombination and patching process until a single new set of specimens arises from the ashes of the old dying ecosystem that can eventually repopulate the planet with new stable off-springs.

        Having thousands of dead pigs floating in Huangpu river may have inadvertently pushed the evolutionary “Red Button” for the pig population, leading to a deadly strain of pig/bird viruses that decided it needs to harvest nearby human populations for new genetic materials to ensure the survival of the pig population.from this calamity. There is certainly some great irony in this form of evolutionary justice.

  5. […] this week Seeing Red in China raised the question as to why Shanghai residents have remained calm about the threat of […]

  6. […] scandal continues to inspire dark humor online. Yaxue Cao at Seeing Red in China reflects on the relative calm of Shanghaiers as the corpses are pulled from the source of over 20% of the city’s drinking […]

  7. King Tubby says:

    Tremendous post. Investigative blogging at its best.
    This pig thing I just can’t believe. Water scarsity/quality and agricultural land degration will be the vox pop issue in the long term…sooner or later.
    Chinadialogue is excelling itself of late with some truly frightening statistics in the above regard. A great but seemingly ignored fount of information. There is so much quality information out there now, and a lot of it is being provided by experts within China.
    Would anyone like to offer betting odds on China being able to effectively address its various environmental issues in the next two decades?
    Not me.
    Massive pollution ratings, exhausted aquifers, poisoned waterways and major problems with the food chain are going to become increasingly frequent. God knows what sort of super viruses are being germinated in this toxic brew. The next one will make SARS look Mickey Mouse.

    • Yaxue Cao says:

      Thank you, King Tubby. There are reasons to be very concerned. I remember you have some biology background. Am I right?

  8. kingtubby1 says:

    Hi Yaxue. I think I ended up in your spam folder. Thnx.

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