China Change

Home » Posts tagged 'Chengdu'

Tag Archives: Chengdu

Choking on Smog, China’s Urban Dwellers Emerge in Protest

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.”

 

wu-qiang_masks_chunxi-rd

Wearing masks, a group of artists and writers sat at Chunxi Road, Chengdu, on December 11.

 

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.

雾霾_口罩

A man in Hangzhou wearing a mask with the Chinese character 忍 (to put up with). Online photo.

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.

 

wu-qiang_masks_stone-lions

Students at Sichuan Fine Arts Academy put masks on stone lions on campus.

 

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.

 

 

Also by Wu Qiang:

The Death and Life of Middle Class Politics in China

The Four Forces of China’s Politics of Smog

What Do Lu Yuyu’s Statistics of Protest Tell Us About the Chinese Society Today?

 

 

The one thing you can be angry about

On Saturday Yaxue shared the story of “Subverter” Chen Pingfu. Essentially, he was deeply in debt after paying for a surgery, and turned to performing in public to try and pay off the money he owed his family members. For this he was threatened and eventually beaten by “public servants,” but he continued on. When he complained about this treatment online, he was further harassed by police, and was forced out of the only job he’d been able to find in years. Chen was a man desperately clinging to the last shred of dignity he had and local officials were determined to take that away from him.

Apparently in China, when the gov’t takes away your job and threaten you by saying, “I’ll send you to your death if you dare be a nuisance! Who do you think you are? Making you die is nothing for us! Go with us if you dare, and see how we will tidy you up!” you are supposed to swallow the bitter pill in absolute silence. For if you are angry, and express that in any public forum, you can be sentenced for “subverting state power.”

But we saw this weekend, that there is still one thing you can be angry about – Japan.

There were massive protests against Japan’s gov’t buying islands (from a Japanese family) which China claims (for excellent coverage see Eric’s coverage at Sinostand). Friends in Nanjing reported seeing smaller crowds gathered and one emailed me to comment on what happened during the Rape of Nanjing, “I still believe only a twisted and distorted nation could have done such horrific things and have enjoyed. It runs in the blood.”

From what Eric at Sinostand saw first hand, he had little doubt that these were gov’t sanctioned, if not gov’t supported protests, as the crowd hoisted Mao posters, and chanted for the long life of the Communist Party (in Xiamen they clearly were). People’s Daily has also hosted a series of other inflammatory news about Japan, which makes it seem as though the gov’t is not done stoking the fire. Global Times condemned the violent protests, but supported the protests over all (this is perhaps the most explicit piece from GT that shows their allegiance to the Party). This fits neatly with the Party’s beloved narrative that they are the only force that can protect China from being carved up by foreign imperialists (of which Japan is the worst).

Perhaps Chinese people really are this upset with Japan (over a move that has changed nothing as far as the issue of the Diaoyu islands is concerned). China does not accept Japanese control of the islands and so Japan’s recent actions should be as upsetting to Chinese students as China buying Hawaii from some guy in Gansu would be to an American. Furthermore, supporters of the Party like to remind us that the Chinese people are of low character, and would be very warlike without the firm control of the gov’t. Or perhaps it’s just that this is the only issue that one can actually take to the streets over without fear of being beaten by police, forced out of your job, or disappearing into the back of a Public Security Bureau van.

A friend in Chengdu told me that one of his greatest regrets in college was participating in the anti-American protests sparked by the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (these were also massive). He told me more than once, that after the U.S. apologized, the protests were halted, and the students were sent back to their universities lest they begin to protest anything else. He feels now as though he was nothing more than a pawn in the gov’t’s game, but at the time it had been a liberating feeling to go and scream and wave banners.

For now the students seem content with venting their frustration with the Japanese gov’t, but as China’s economy slows down and graduates can’t find jobs, it’s only a matter of time before they realize who they are really angry with.

Out of control gov’t official abuses power – a very generic post

On return from more than a week on the road, I caught up with my China news and found it all to be a bit…predictable. In response I’ve created the following template that seems to exist somewhere to save all of you time.

A gov’t official (or family member of an official) was caught abusing their power by murdering/embezzling/forcing farmers off their land/covering up a scandal for a company in X province. The story first appeared on Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, late last week and built to a crescendo over the weekend.

SomeGuyWithACamera posted pictures of an angry crowd ranging between dozens and thousands, which were deleted within 24 hours by censors. Calls to the local gov’t went unanswered. A man from the gov’t in the neighboring district said that, “The foreign forces conspiring to bring down China,” had organized this protest in co-operation with the Dalai Lama, he only gave his surname – Wang.

On Weibo there was a wide variety of reactions. ImAngry tweeted, “Gov’t officials are always abusing their power while they claim to be serving the people.” A very different response came later from PossiblyWuMao saying, “Gov’t officials only have our best interests at heart and we shouldn’t expect them to stop at red lights/refuse invitations to expensive dinners/not flee overseas with embezzled money.”

I could go on, but I think you get my point. After several years of consuming almost every scrap of Chinese news, the narrative has gotten stale. The idea that seems to be behind these cases is that Weibo is a tool for ensuring justice in an unjust country, and that the Chinese gov’t is slowly reforming.

As an American, I am lured to this reading, as it reflects my own desire to see the Chinese people taking control over their country. However, we have yet to see a meaningful clean up in gov’t as a result of the widespread abuses we learn of on a daily basis. As much as I hate to say it, Weibo is at best a band-aid or a safety valve – not a source of meaningful reform. If it were, we would be seeing aggressive legislation and an easing of the limits placed on Chinese journalists instead of GT fluff pieces about acceptable levels of graft.

I don’t mean to say that Weibo is fruitless, it has enabled us to get a much bigger picture of what is happening in China, but it is still a carefully managed virtual world with very real boundaries. As a friend in Chengdu told me, he had seen reports of a self-immolation near his home (unrelated to Tibet) and within fifteen minutes of stumbling across the story it had completely disappeared, far too quickly to be picked up by foreign media or anyone else.

Weibo gives a voice to individual Chinese people, but does not allow for a collective voice to call for change. As was noted in a recent study, most criticisms of the gov’t survive censorship while posts relating to organizing much of anything are quickly deleted.

My fear is that in an effort to show the growth of people power in China, we’ve created an image of a  country that is reforming while officials are allowed to bend laws for their own needs and the gov’t shies away from anything that might someday curb their power. Instead of portraying Weibo as the hero of the tales we tell, it would be a better use of ink (and bandwidth) to focus more closely on the groups and individuals pushing for change.

The crackdown and foreign garbage – a few ideas that still need to be addressed

For the last few weeks, the expat community in China has been abuzz with talk about Beijing’s crackdown on foreigners who are here illegally, and the growing anti-foreign sentiment that seems to be stoked by state media (Beijing Cream’s summary of what sparked it all and the fiery post that almost got China Geeks sued). So far the crackdown has already spread to Yanbian and Chengdu is preparing to announce similar measures, a nationwide campaign in the next few months would not be surprising. If we’re completely honest though, I think most of us would agree with the importance of enforcing visa policies, but dislike the tone of the rhetoric and the nationalism it encourages. I think we should also admit that most of us know people who are currently violating the terms of their visa, and that this pushes us to view the directives in a different light. Today I want to bring up a few ideas that I think are worthy of further discussion, without rehashing too much of what has already been said.

Note: China “cracks down” on lots of things, and my Chinese friends found nothing surprising about the language used. It’s highly likely that local authorities did not consider how the campaign would sound to foreigners. Hopefully, someone will learn a lesson from the backlash, the poor “journalists” at People’s Daily have been trying to put a positive spin on it for days now.

“Strengthen the management of foreigners. Crack down on the three types of illegals.” Banner in Beijing from @niubi. The three illegals are: illegal entry, overstayed visa, and illegal employment

First, it is important to note that “foreigners” is a catch-all term for a very disparate group. South East Asians and North Koreans (a second campaign was launched in North Eastern China to combat this) fill the needs of cheap physical labor in industries that are no longer enticing to Chinese workers; African traders have found a base that offers them a reasonably comfortable life, while opening a market for cheaply made Chinese goods; and young, mostly white, English speakers only partially fill the gigantic demand for teachers. They are attracted to China for many reasons, but the fact that work is easy to find is likely the most common one (I was almost made a VP of marketing for a wine distributor while shopping at the supermarket once). Unfortunately, China seems to have been completely unprepared for this, and has what could only charitably be described as a rudimentary system for handling the influx.

This brings me to my second point: except for the occasional, vague threats, there is little reason to follow China’s visa regulations for the time being. As far as I have seen, companies hiring foreigners breaching the terms of their visas never face repercussions (same in the US), and so have no reason not to hire these people. At the same time, the chances of getting caught working illegally are probably about the same as being audited by the IRS, and the salary generally is much higher than whatever the fines would be (for English Teachers). While I am in no way encouraging this behavior, it is not hard to understand why so many otherwise law abiding individuals break the terms of their visas.

This is further exacerbated by the often mercurial visa process, and the hassle associated with it (this of course coming from expats like me, who have never had to apply for a US or EU visa). Not only is it confusing for an individual applying for a visa, but it can also be incredibly difficult and expensive for companies/schools to get permission from gov’t officials to hire foreigners. In the cases I am familiar with it has been the school or company that encouraged the expat to come on a tourist visa, insisting that it is common (it is) and legal (it isn’t).

The majority of the people I know in this category are living in China on student visas, but find themselves working on holidays and weekends for spending money. I doubt that very many of these people will be swept out in this campaign, yet this group seems to be the most vocal about the crack down. Instead I think it will focus on people from other Asian countries and Africa, these are the groups that my co-workers quite openly despise and are seen as a source of crime (I don’t know of any statistics backing this up, but neither do any of my co-workers).

In the debate, it’s also worth noting that there are a large number (but a small percentage) of foreigners in China that are truly despicable, but are here completely legally. This was the case with the Russian cellist who swore at the woman on the train, and the British tourist who attempted to rape a local woman (which in Chinese is simply two undifferentiated foreign devils). Checking visas and passports does nothing to curb the underlying problems related to Chinese law enforcement.

Twice I have been approached by completely unknown expats who were teachers that openly bragged about sleeping with their students or prostitutes. After the disturbing conversation, they gave me their business cards. Yet, when I contacted their schools and the local authorities about these individuals, I was completely brushed aside. The training school in Guangdong said the man had a heart condition and therefore could not engage in sexual activity. Shanghai Normal University, where the other man was employed, said that they were confident that such a thing had not happened and weren’t going to investigate it. The gov’t agencies in Shenzhen never replied to my emails. Sadly, I doubt that this is uncommon.

Yet, I worry that even if these schools were to fire these individuals, another institute would offer them a position. The sad reality is that many institutions are so starved for foreign talent, that they never question the character of the individuals; even when presented with damning evidence they are more concerned with saving face than protecting their students (I know of similar cases involving Chinese teachers that were also covered up).

Furthermore, legal cases involving foreigners are still unclear in the eyes of law enforcement officials which leads to “special treatment.” This of course is something that expats have little control over, and quite frankly should not demand. As mentioned in today’s People’s Daily, expats pulled over for speeding are occasionally let off without a fine due to the police officer’s inability to communicate with them. While English shouldn’t be a requirement for all officers, perhaps a translation service could be set up to help police communicate with expats to avoid such unequal application of the law.

Others are let go because the officers are concerned about how to handle the situation and are wary of the possible mountains of paper work, which has been another aspect specifically mentioned in Chinese editorials on the issue. Perhaps here foreigners are targeted because it is not possible to openly criticize the military personnel and gov’t officials who also receive these undeserved privileges.

So I would like to propose the following – that we expats living in China improve our efforts to police ourselves. When we hear our friends talking about looking for work, we push them to get the proper visas. When we see obnoxiously drunk expats staggering out of a bar, we get them into a cab and on their way home. When we hear of teachers sleeping with their own students, we take action to protect their students. You can also focus on your own behavior- like withstanding the pushing on the bus without screaming and maybe even give up your seat when no one else is willing. Reply to as many “Haalllooows” with a friendly smile and wave as long as you can stomach. As unfair as it is, remember that wherever you go, you’re not only representing yourself or even your country, but all waiguoren, all ~5.6 billion of us.

The fall of Bo Xilai and spreading rumors as civil disobedience in China

Last night the Central Gov’t confirmed that rumors of Bo Xilai’s involvement in the death of a British national were true. The Party claims this as a victory that shows China as a country “ruled by law (and here),” even though information about this case began to surface months ago with Wang Lijun fleeing to the U.S. Embassy in Chengdu.

Bo’s sacking along with the revelation that he may have been an accomplice in a murder is also unusual in that high-level officials are usually dismissed without much clarification. In the last big case, with Railway minister Liu Zhijun supposedly embezzling 800 million RMB, it was only stated in the Chinese press that he was suspected for graft without a specific amount (even though he was blamed for the high-speed rail crash and other railway officials were named with specific amounts). This indicates that more information has been revealed this time as part of an effort to curb rumors.

However, there are still many questions left unanswered and censorship has been greatly increased since the announcement to squash any new rumors from forming (which is difficult).

The first question we should explore is – What kind of country spawns rumors about officials murdering foreigners in which the official gets away with it? Or that the military has occupied Beijing without it being reported on the news? While one of these rumors has been verified and the other disproved, they both spread like wildfire without any confirmation or semblance of evidence. Rumors only take root in fertile soil (compare the viability of Bo rumors to whether or not Bin Laden was killed). This reveals a society (inhabitants of weibo, not all of China) that believes most gov’t officials are corrupt, that such officials are rarely punished, and that even a murder most foul would be covered up. This does not suggest that the citizens see China as a country under rule of law; they know that many like Chen Guangcheng are still being held outside the law.

Secondly, rumors are continuing to spread in spite of real name registration on Weibo, renewed efforts to effectively contain such sensitive speech online, and a dozen or so articles from the Chinese press begging netizens to stop spreading rumors and place their trust in the Party. This demonstrates a hunger for knowledge even under threat of arrest, and a major push towards the democratization of information in China. While the gov’t still discourages the spread of “illegal information,” it looks as though netizens are starting to challenge the assertion that there are some things they should never know.

This brings me to my main point – In modern China spreading rumors about gov’t officials can be seen as a form of civil disobedience* (In that it is non-violent and challenges a law that is seen as unjust). Netizens are actively refusing to heed the requests of the gov’t to stop spreading rumors as a way of demanding a more transparent and open form of gov’t. This is in no way an attempt to overthrow the Party, but instead seeks the information that is being denied to them, as well as challenging the current limits on their freedom of speech.

This morning as my wife headed to work she noticed that her school bus was a cacophony of “Bo Xilai,” “murder,” and “British person.” With the knowledge that this was being discussed openly, we tested whether or not a text message of 薄熙来 (Bo Xilai) could be received – it was not. When I arrived at work I mentioned this to my Chinese co-workers. They both claimed that it was a problem with my phone and that China did not possess the capabilities to block text messages. So one of them, wanting to prove me wrong, sent a text. A few minutes passed before my phone beeped with a new message – it was the second one she had sent as a test, it simply read “OK.” After waiting a few more minutes without any more messages, they saw first hand the level of censorship that exists in China**. It was an experience that overrides all the People’s Daily and Global Times articles that claim freedom of speech exists in this country. It also shows that even sending a 3 character text can be a form of civil disobedience and a tool for political awakening.

*I recommend reading The Mask of Anarchy (the important bits), which is considered the first poem on the subject of Civil Disobedience (full poem).

**I repeated this test with friends in Beijing and Chengdu, both reported that they did not receive my text. The pinyin “Bo Xilai” seemed to be uncensored. Test was done around 8a.m. on April 11th

China is still a police state (?)

For those who have never visited China, the country offers much more freedom than you are probably imagining. For those who’ve visited for quick trips, China is likely far more restrictive than what you’ve experienced. For most people in China, the lack of freedom only occasionally asserts itself as the veneer of “reform and opening up” gives way, exposing the fact that in many ways, China is still a police state.

Despite my daily reading of abuses and scandals, these breaches rarely appear in daily life. This is partially why I try to avoid reporting on every act of depravity, they don’t reflect the China I know. At times it feels like there are two completely separate realms, the one in the papers and the one that I love. However, from time to time I do catch a glimpse of something that leaves me shaking (often with rage or sorrow), unable to mesh the disparate realities into a coherent picture of China.

Twice I have seen petitioners dragged away screaming.

Once was during my time in Chengdu. Just as my bus passed the central square, an older woman dropped to her knees in the road, prostrating before an official’s sedan. She kowtowed two or three times before men appeared, and pulled her into the gov’t compound. The passengers on the bus pressed their faces to the window as the woman called for justice, but their interest disappeared almost as quickly as the woman.

A few months before that I had stood in the same square celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was one of the few moments outside of Chinese New Year that I had seen such public revelry. A crowd of thousands had gathered for a fireworks display and the street leading to the square had more flags than I could count. It was a reminder of not only the progress China had made since 1949, but also how far it had moved since reform and opening up began.

These two memories of the square seem at odds in my mind, yet occupy the same space.

Another time, I saw a group of men holding signs outside the gov’t building in Nanjing on my way to work. The morning traffic allowed a slightly longer view as the scene unfolded. Both sides were dressed in the puffy black jackets symbolic of a Chinese winter, for the most part it seemed as though the gov’t was willing to permit this venting of frustration. Then chaos descended and out of the mess of violence, I saw a man handcuffed and dragged, his arms behind his back, out of sight.

I pass that same place every morning. When I see the plain clothed officers pacing back and forth with their coats and purses, which seems to be their unofficial uniform, or when I’m not too distracted by traffic, the weather, or the shoving on the bus, I remember the man who was taken away.

Other reminders of State control are no less jarring – having police wake you as you sleep in the airport so they can record your passport number in their log, or waiting as officers check ID cards on long bus rides between cities (occasionally dozens of times on a single trip). For me the most unnerving was a visit to the Public Security Bureau (to renew my visa), and being questioned about the various hotels I had stayed at throughout China. The man behind the desk knew far more about my travels than I had thought possible.

For many of my students, their first inkling that China is different from other countries came as they began to explore the web. One day at lunch a Chinese friend who had just returned from the US was struggling to remember the name of his favorite actor, and decided to check IMDB with his iPhone as he had done in the States. The page failed to load, and my friend turned red trying to explain away the error message, even though we both knew the reason.

Who knows how many thousands of netizens stumbled into restrictions over this past week as word spread of Bo’s sacking – my co-workers have been talking about it for days.

I would love to be able to tell you that the things you read in Western papers are complete fabrications (and I hope that day comes soon), but even though China has made reforms in many areas, movement is still restricted, laws are bent at the whim of the powerful, and opposing voices are silenced – China is still a police state.