Wu Qiang, December 14, 2016
“They had merely to sit on the edges of Tianfu Square wearing smog masks for police bring them in for interrogation until the early hours of the morning — this is a clear show of how deeply anxious Chengdu authorities are about protests against smog.”
For the last week, inland China has been enveloped in smog. Some cities issued emergency smog warnings; others cancelled outdoor activities at schools. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, the government banned gatherings in Tianfu Square (天府广场)— as though they were afraid of something. And just as expected, on the weekend, Chengdu residents came out in numbers on Chunxi road in the central business district and on Tianfu Square. Some sat down quietly wearing pollution masks, others held up banners of protest.
In the frigid winter night of a smog-enclosed 2016, the protest of Chengdu residents was like the flash of a shooting star.
These are the “smog politics” of contemporary China. The smog question has almost transformed the landscape of Chinese politics since February 2015, with the broadcast of the documentary “Under the Dome” (穹顶之下) by former CCTV journalist Chai Jing (柴静). The government has been busy: Under the aegis of unifying the Jing-Jin-Ji (Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei) conurbation, Beijing has embarked on a project of social engineering aimed at resolving the smog problem: heavily polluting industries in Hebei have been forced to lower output, stop production, or shutter; Beijing has embarked on a program of “low-end population congestion relief;” and villages on the outskirts of Beijing are in the midst of converting from coal-based to to natural gas energy for heating. Meanwhile, smog continues to enshroud China now and then, and saturating social media is the discontent of the Chinese middle-class, only interrupted from time to time by a variety of other politically-tinged incidents — the “poisoned running tracks,” “the Lei Yang incident,” the “Luo Er fundraising scandal,” and bullying at the Zhongguancun No. 2 Elementary School.
It is as though a new middle class, as full of uncertainty as it is of energy, is rapidly forming its own class politics in the shroud of China’s smog. There is, for instance, the movement to “make a fortune and get out as soon as possible,” referring to emigration. There are also large collectives of underground discontent who express themselves on social media. And then there are always the unexpected small-scale protest actions in the streets.
Even as the authorities move to suppress human rights lawyers and emphasize once again political thought work in schools, a politically-awakened middle-class, oriented around the politics of pollution, is forming in a rapidly urbanizing China. With their own series of often indecisive demands and modes of expression, they’ve begun to displace the rights defense movement that came before, and their numbers are quietly growing.
For instance, on the evening of December 11 in Tianfu Square, the majority of those in the sit-in were local artists and culture workers — they’d either come of their own initiative, or were mobilized by emphatic protest slogans shared on social media in the last few days. The online posts advertising the protest seemed to be inspired by the confluence of art and politics over the last few years: the various artistic creations of Ai Weiwei (艾未未), for instance, or the protest performances of the Song Zhuang art circle (北京宋庄艺术圈子), or the anti-smog demonstrations during the Beijing Marathon. They had merely to sit on the edges of Tianfu Square wearing smog masks for police to bring them in for interrogation until the early hours of the morning — this is a clear show of how deeply anxious Chengdu authorities are about protests against smog. Local social media users on Monday even circulated an official notice that the wearing of masks is prohibited during school assembly, and that air purifiers were not going to be installed. It’s as though wearing a face mask is mobilizing for a color revolution.
The deep fearfulness of the regime makes clear the power of middle-class politics “under the dome”: they need barely to raise a crowd — simply holding a small-scale protest action, even when unlikely to have any real effect, makes the authorities extremely nervous, and they rally the troops like it was the eve of battle. The Pengzhou petrochemical project (彭州石化项目), close to Chengdu and most likely to have a deleterious impact on the environment, probably won’t be scrapped because of this. But leading officials in Sichuan and Chengdu know they don’t have the option of putting their feet up and blaming everything on the policies of those who came before. Quite the opposite: it’s likely that in the weeks and months ahead, they’ll be stewing over the protests, like they’re sitting on the mouth of a volcano. Perhaps this is precisely the homogenizing character of smog: concentrated in major cities, yet inescapable to all.
This is where smog politics differs from the NIMBY movement of the past few years. When the Pengzhou petrochemical plant got going, Chengdu didn’t erupt in mass protests like those against the paraxylene plant in Xiamen in 2013. That requires a small number of committed environmental activists coupled with widespread public engagement — but now the prophylactic and suppressive power of the security forces has grown so quickly, they’re able to shut such protests down.
Smog is different. Within just a few years, it’s turned all city dwellers into collective victims — and amplified the sense of frustration and grievance of those who are trying, and every day failing, to enter the middle class. The most aggrieved among them aren’t rights defenders that the authorities have already identified, ready to apprehend at a moment’s notice. Now, no matter how small the protest is — even if it’s just a selfie with a slogan written on paper — as soon as it happens, the homogenizing character of China’s pollution politics means that everyone soon hears about it, and it becomes a general protest.
All this means that everyone — not just those in North China, or denizens along the Yangtze river or coast, but the central and local governments too, and the state-backed “environmental experts” who were brought out to defend the Pengzhou petrochemical plant, as well as the nationalists like Zhou Xiaoping (周小平) — now finds themselves in an uncertain and unprecedented gambit. There’s no solution: only the arrival of a crisp northern gale, or a summer typhoon, is able to temporarily lift the stifling smog.
But these two natural forces are no help to those in the Chengdu basin. As long as the smog doesn’t clear, protests in Chengdu will continue to serve as a model specimen of China’s pollution politics, keeping the discussion alive among the urbanized middle class, fanning debate, and inviting citizens elsewhere to emulate. This will be a test of whether or not China has something like a “civil society,” and whether its middle class has political significance. Like France on the eve of 1789, any spontaneous protests by Chengdu citizens could turn into a movement demanding clean air. When that happens, the final stage of pollution politics will have arrived.
Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.
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