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The Death and Life of Middle Class Politics in China

Observing Recent Events, Especially the Death of Lei Yang

By Wu Qiang, June 13, 2016


As public contention surrounding the death of Lei Yang’s continues to grow, something new is developing in China’s political scene: the middle class is speaking out and asserting its own demands, even as the rights defense movement continues to suffer a sustained crackdown.  


吴强 (2)

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强)

Four recent deaths in China sparked widespread public attention. The first, on April 12, was the that of Wei Zexi (魏泽西), a university student in Shaanxi Province, who perished from a rare form of cancer after following recommendations for a hospital from China’s largest search engine, Baidu. It turned out that the facility was part of the so-called “Putian network,” a clique of corrupt businessmen with their origin in a township in Putian, Fujian Province, who peddled quack treatments. The incident exposed the unethical ties between Baidu and hospitals in China. Then on May 5, Chen Zhongwei (陈仲伟), a doctor in Guangzhou, was hacked to death by a patient in his own home. Two days later, the 29-year-old Beijing environmental worker Lei Yang (雷洋) died in police custody shortly after being apprehended on the street by plainclothes police. On May 10, the 36-year-old Zhengzhou resident (and Masters degree holder) Fan Huapei (范花培) was so enraged by the forced demolition of his property that he lashed out at, and killed, a local official—he was soon after shot to death by police.

All these deaths triggered protests of varying scale, with anger and discontent directed at a search engine company, the healthcare system, the military, and the police. Beneath it all is the deep sense of anxiety of the Chinese middle class, worrying about its personal safety, health, and livelihood. To this author, what’s notable is that fact that these events have sparked unprecedented and new forms of organization and protest, with China’s social elites taking the central role.  

The most representative instance is the protests that burst into public view following the death of Lei Yang. Lei graduated with a Masters degree from Beijing’s elite Renmin University of China in 2012. On his way to the airport to pick up relatives in the evening of May 7, he was arrested near his home by several plainclothes police officers. Soon after, he mysteriously died in their custody. Later, local police said that they had been carrying out an “anti-prostitution” crackdown, and thought that Lei Yang had just exited a brothel. They broadcast the testimony of an on-duty police officer, as well as a “prostitute,” on state television to back-up this story, and also claimed that all of the surveillance cameras in the vicinity had been damaged. The body-cameras on the police who interacted with Lei Yang were also broken, they said. And when it was found that even all recording on Lei Yang’s cellphone had also somehow been removed, they said they had nothing to do with it. The brutal acts of the police, their blatant coverup, and weak defense, infuriated Lei Yang’s friends and schoolmates.

On May 11, an open letter of protest signed by alumni of Renmin University’s class of 1988 (the year of entrance) quickly went viral. A string of open letters by other alumni classes soon appeared online, including a joint declaration by alumni of the class 1977 and 1978.

Directly and unequivocally, these letters questioned the Chinese police’s use of violence and abuse of power, and for the first time brought into the open the collective sense of deep unease and personal insecurity felt by China’s middle class—in particular the fear that even their own basic physical safety isn’t protected. They also called for an independent, transparent investigation into Lei’s death. The alumni of the Class of ‘88 described the death of Lei Yang as “the random, willful killing of an ordinary, urban, middle-class person.”

At the end of that letter appears one of the strongest remarks of the last decade: “The death of Lei Yang is not an accident, but a structural tragedy. We ask that the highest authorities conduct an independent and fair investigation into Lei’s death; we demand that the murderers be punished and that law enforcement be rectified and disciplined. We must have the most basic, dependable safety, civil rights, and urban order. Short of this, we, who are not too old to give up on the future, will not let the issue go. We won’t tolerate evil indefinitely.”

A week later, the protest brought two public responses by China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping, one of which demanded that the government treat China’s middle class properly, the other demanding that law enforcement be regulated.

These episodes do not really, in fact, sit neatly within the established paradigm for understanding Chinese politics: they rupture the superficial harmony and stability between the Chinese society and government, and demonstrate a transformative contention between old and new forces, furnishing observers with a new framework for understanding events. The situation parallels the philosophical-spiritual analysis laid out in the book “Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept” by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, where he refers to the creation of a new political subject. China’s newly rising middle classes are, through their participation in these incidents and the solidarity that inheres in that participation, reconstituting their own subjectivity. In the context of three years of iron-fisted rule under Xi Jinping, this is without doubt an extraordinary challenge and shift.

It’s true that this series of incidents is still playing out, the outcome is still uncertain, and the public’s attention will likely to shift to new topics as they burst forth, but events like the death of Lei Yang may be moving China’s political tectonics, and may be the only path for pushing change in China’s stiff and ossified political system.

Behind these incidents is the display of the unprecedented power of China’s newly risen urbanized classes. They mobilize and stage protests via alumni groups on social media platforms, and unite two generations of China’s educated class — the 1980s generation and the  post-Tiananmen generation — in their demand for justice. This is a new form of Chinese politics, or put another way, the rise of a middle-class politics in China.

Even though these are small actions in the post-Tiananmen market reform period, they have already created many precedents: The first successful mobilization using alumni networks; the first cross-generational mobilization of alumni including both elites within the official system and social elites; the first instance in which an elite university has been involved in the expression of the collective fears and anger of the new middle class; and the first large-scale direct resistance to police order, which throws down a challenge to the core of power and authority in China: the police, and police violence.

Considering the large-scale self-organized protests across China in May against “reducing Gaokao admissions” that included self-immolation and expressions of extreme discontent with the current education system, we can safely declare that this is the first time since the Sun Zhigang incident in 2003 clearly signalling that China’s middle class is no longer rejecting political resistance. Because of Lei Yang’s death, the social capital formerly deployed in the reproduction of elite status (in this case alumni ties) was instead mobilized, politicized, and transformed into a new tool of middle class protest. Afterwards, participants felt a clearer sense of group identity, clearer political demands, and on the basis of their collective anxieties, used social media to further mobilize, eventually forming a protest coalition.

What’s even more significant about this is that the new form of middle class politics has arisen in the three years that the Xi Jinping regime has been dealing heavy, incessant blows to China’s civil society. This includes the Southern Weekend incident in the beginning of 2013, the “internet cleansing” campaign that shortly followed, the forcible shutdown of independent NGOs and then the arrest of NGO leaders, rights lawyers, women’s rights activists, and labor leaders, and in the strengthening demands in the ideological sphere for loyalty to Xi and the Communist Party, and rejection of Western values.

While the rights defense movement has spread like wildfire in China over the last decade, the middle class participants have been limited to rights lawyers, a small number of intellectuals, journalists operating at commercial media, and NGO workers. In the burgeoning middle class in China, these people represent a very small number. They advocate primarily for the rights and interests of those in society’s lower strata, as well as minority groups, using their professional capabilities to provide assistance, and supporting self-organized activities like “protests according to the law.” However, these “downwards from the middle” rights defense efforts  — which include the flourishing of NGOs, philanthropy aimed at helped those at the bottom of society, and limited “surround and watch” (围观)  protests, where activists congregate where events took place — have all slowly been receding in the last few years, as the Xi Jinping regime unfolds a campaign of targeted repression over fears of a “color revolution.” Institutionalizing suppression, the Law on the Management of the Activities of Overseas NGOs within Mainland China, which was promulgated on April 29, 2016, not only severed the ties between Chinese civil society and the international community, but also isolated the middle classes and their NGOs from the lower social strata.

It was just as the rights defense movement in China was being terminated by force that the string of incidents over the last month indicated a new phase of development: the political resistance of the Chinese middle class, using an entirely self-mobilized organizational model, has emerged as a player on the political scene. Importantly, they’ve begun to display an identity and set of demands that have already, at a certain level, exceeded what would be expected of a group that is tacitly reliant on the system (because they, as a class, are the petty bourgeois that has arisen from the coming together of the bureaucratic class and the market economy). They’re also building on the foundation laid by the rights defense movement over the past 10 years, and even that of the earlier 1989 movement, with a new process of internal class mobilization.

Compared with the rights defense movement’s attempt, from the outside, to mobilize the lower classes, China’s middle class possesses more robust resources for a movement — whether financially, ideationally, or rhetorically. As to whether they’ll be able to better use new media and technology and organizational forms, the extent of their convictions and willpower, and whether they’ll be able to stage still more protests and acts of defiance — all that, of course, will only be known as we observe the struggles that are sure to follow. The one thing that we can be sure of is that the string of incidents over the last month has established a new framework for political resistance in China, and moreover, has begun to change the self-awareness of the middle class.

That is, they’ve learnt that the bonds of the middle class traditionally used for maintaining class identity and social reproduction can also be transformed into a force for mobilization and resistance. It’s only the diehards in the rights defense movement, who arrogate to themselves the right to speak for the lower classes, and who’ve been suppressed by the authorities, who not only can’t imagine the changes that may result from this new politics, but who also persist in discounting the significance of the middle class and middle class politics.

As the size of the middle class increases, and the the pace of urbanization speeds up, the Chinese government’s basis of legitimacy is quickly turning into a question of whether it has the continued support of the middle class, and whether that middle class has sufficient household consumption. All that is happening at a time when the Chinese economy continues to decline, or faces a prolonged “L-shaped” period of stagnation. With all this in mind, we can safely predict that middle class political resistance is going to emerge as a major force in China. A political opposition may emerge out of the demand for equal rights to education, personal freedom, and civil rights, competing with the Communist Party for the role of middle class’ protector, thus influencing China’s political future.


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.


Minxin Pei: China’s Middle Class Is About to Demand Big Changes, May 26, 2016

Also by Wu Qiang on China Change:  

In the Wake of the Sino-American Summit, the Potential for a New Cold War, October, 2015.

Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview, August, 2014.


原文 中產階級的死與生──雷洋案後維權運動的終結》. China Change translated an earlier version of the article.




Fear of Losing Control: Why China Is Implementing an Internet Security Law

By Mo Zhixu, published: October 4, 2015

“[T]he existence of a relatively free, relaxed, and anonymous Internet for the regime is ‘the root of all evil.'”


August 5 was the last day that opinions were solicited by the government for its new Internet Security Law, meaning that in the near future the legislation will be formally unveiled. In draft form, many of its clauses have already attracted scrutiny: for example, the draft stresses that Internet sovereignty is the extension of state sovereignty into cyberspace; it also takes as its objective “protecting the sovereignty of cyberspace and national security,” granting almost unlimited powers to the administrative organs in charge of the Internet. Many think that the Chinese government is setting up a “national Intranet.”

The draft law holds website operators primarily responsible for the content on their websites, with detailed and comprehensive rules, particularly on cyber security. For instance, website operators have a duty to deal with illegal information (Article 40), they must prevent the transmission or publication on their platforms or software information that violates regulations (Article 41), and they’re required to provide all necessary support to investigatory organs (Article 23), and so on. The draft law also gives the relevant departments the power to punish those transmitting information found to be in violation, as well as to block such information (Article 43), and even to “shut down the Internet according to the law” (Article 50).

But what has attracted the most attention from regular Internet users is the real name registration system, which ensures that all information posted to the Internet can be traced to its origin (Article 20). With all this—granting state agencies extraordinary powers, forcing website operators to take total responsibility and dutifully follow the law, and funneling Internet users into a monitored real-name system—a cyberspace is created in which strict control is exercised, and from which there is no escape.

That the “Internet Security Law” would be such should come as no surprise. For the last several years, Beijing has upped its control of the Internet; the purge of two years ago [in which famous users of Sina Weibo who were critical of the government were publicly humiliated and in some cases jailed] is still in the memory of many. In the eyes of the authorities, control of the Internet is not just a matter of regular social management; it involves the so-called “national security,” or in other words, the stability of the regime. Control of the Internet has enormous strategic significance.

In my view, Internet control is of supreme importance for a totalitarian regime because of the social consequences of marketization and modernization: the regime on the one hand needed to introduce markets in order to keep the country running, but on the other hand, the social fallout of this process could also be subversive. Since the Internet is the most likely space in which this subversive effect would begin, it has become something that the Chinese rulers must control with utter thoroughness.

Before market reforms, the totalitarian system in China had no civil society to speak of, and the movement of resources, information, and people were all under its absolute control. The work unit (单位) and People’s Communes (人民公社) were the basic social structures, and every individual was integrated into a system of direct management and even personal control. Through this, the system gained extraordinary stability. Of course, such a system also lost its vitality, falling into stagnation and want which not only exemplified the differences with the free world in terms of economic, scientific, and military development, but also brought general dissatisfaction, including inside the the ruling group itself.

This apparatus saps the energy from the system, and in extreme cases can become another threat to it. The massive changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to a large degree demonstrated this. In this regard, mainland China’s limited introduction of market economy can be seen as a need for self-repair to overcome its own systemic deficiencies, narrow the gap between it and the rest of the world in the development of its economy, science and military, and boost the vigor and lifespan of the dictatorship.

Over the last 30 years the market reforms in China have to a very large degree achieved those goals: markets have brought economic development, they’ve overcome general stagnation and underdevelopment, and have indeed lessened the gap between China and the rest of the world on the economic, scientific, and military fronts. This is the basis of the so-called “Three Self-Confidences.” It’s also clear that reforms have since the beginning all been about preserving the dictatorship, not what some wishful observers think — a step in the transformation of China’s polity toward a democracy.

However, while the regime gained all these benefits, markets have indeed brought new challenges for the maintenance of dictatorship.

First, market reform requires the free movement of capital, information, and people, so members of society need to be granted personal rights, economic rights, and cultural (and consumption) rights. This also inevitably brings about the dissolution of the work unit and commune system, and removes the vast majority of the people from direct, personal control by the state.

Secondly, marketization has brought about new constellation of interests and resulted in new social groups, who each have their own interests and demands, one after another. For instance, statistics from varying sources all indicate that mass incidents [protests involving between dozens and tens of thousands of people] have gone straight up in recent years.

Finally, marketization and opening up have the inevitable effect of stimulating demands for rights from newly emerged classes, spreading liberal ideas, and expanding the social base of people who harbor fundamental suspicions about the status quo.

All these changes on the one hand bring endless pressure for the authorities to engage in “stability maintenance,” and on the other become a primordial fear they will never be able to shake: The vast masses, who are not under direct administrative control and who are free to move, have a natural desire for rights and interests that stand in opposition to the system; they have a natural affinity for freedom. As soon as the social and economic conditions appear—that is to say, once a crisis descends—this vast group is entirely capable of turning around, questioning the fundamental legitimacy of the system, and setting off a subversive social movement.

This fear has stalked China’s marketization, and the result of it is the increasing rigidity of the stability maintenance system and the covering-all grid of  social management. 

A relatively free, relaxed, and anonymous Internet has offered just such a suitable platform for such a possibility, and has thus become a thorn in Beijing’s eye. On the one hand, the mainland does not have freedom of speech; all media are still owned and controlled by the government, making the Internet the most important platform for the spreading of liberal thought. On the other hand, China has no freedom of association, and no formal opposition group can form, so cyberspace offers the tools for all kinds of informal associations and opposition networks, and facilitates protest actions. For the authorities, the Internet is the most important, or even only, platform for people under no direct control to assemble together. Not only that, but as soon as the right social conditions arise, and doubts about the system bubble up widely in society, the Internet is the only place it could converge, potentially becoming a platform for revolutionary mobilization. Because of all this, the existence of the Internet for the regime is “the root of all evil.”

Over the last few years, Beijing has launched wave after wave of attacks against the spread of all manner of ideas and protests on the Internet. These attacks have first of all targeted activists that are known to the authorities: through implementing the grid of stability maintenance system, and through a continuous purge from the Internet [through account deletion or censorship], activists have been put under thorough control and pressure. This is evident in the recent mass arrest of lawyers since July 10. After years of continuous repression, they have already eliminated the possibility of any organized resistance developing; and because of this, in the eyes of the authorities, they have already reduced to the utmost the possibility of an organized and subversive movement.

But just eliminating the threat of organized resistance doesn’t mean Beijing can sleep peacefully; there’s still the possibility that under certain economic and social conditions, mass incidents could take place, forming a social movement that topples the regime. If such a movement were to happen, cyberspace and Internet tools again become crucial—their immediacy and scope give them explosive and revolutionary possibilities. For the authorities, getting rid of this is like buying the ultimate insurance policy; or put another way, like finding the final puzzle piece for regime security. This is precisely the base reason for the “Internet Security Law,” and the draft version completely displays Beijing’s intent.

The regime’s claims about Internet sovereignty being the enbodiment and extension of state sovereignty are just a means to block information inflow from the world, and eliminate the voices of support for China’s civil resistance and social movement. Pushing the responsibility onto Internet operators is to thoroughly purge the voices that call the legitimacy of the regime into question, and to get rid of all manner of dissent and protest. And finally, the real name registration system is a means for ridding the Internet of anonymity, allowing the authorities to identify the activists and dissenters, driving them completely out of cyberspace.

After the roll-out of the “Internet Security Law,” the Internet will never have the same freedom, tolerance, and anonymity which have been steadily diminishing anyway. As a result, mainland China’s voices for liberalization and opposition will gradually lose their only platform. And then, even if there are the right social and economic conditions, Beijing will still be able to prevent the Internet from becoming a platform for people and ideas to coalesce, thus lowering the possibility of sudden large-scale gatherings, and stopping the Internet from acting as a source of revolutionary mobilization. The so-called “shut down the Internet according to law” article in the new legislation makes clear this intent.

There is no suspense or uncertainty about the goal of the “Internet Security Law”: it is to keep the dictatorial system in power. Since its entry to China, the Internet has been heralded as the agent of “change in China,” but as the “Internet Security Law” is enacted, this virtual space will fall under the same strict control as real space, and all the romance will depart like a dying breath.

After losing this important, or even sole platform, what form will China’s civil resistance take? Without the Internet as a meeting place for people and ideas, what form will sudden, mass protests take? None of these questions have ready-made answers, but there is no doubt that the “Internet Security Law” will bring the gradual silencing of the Internet, the herald of an unendurable ice age. This will profoundly influence, and even transform, the development of Chinese society.


Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor to Chinese-language publications, known for his incisive views on Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.





Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China, April 2013

Internet Freedom in China: A Menace that Must Be Removed, March 2014.

The Advent of a National LAN in China, July 2014.


Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview, by Wu Qiang, China Change, August 2013.


中文原文《莫之许:中国为何要推网络安全法》, translated by China Change.


Amidst the Smog, I Hear the Bugle Call for a National Environmental Movement

By Wu Qiang, published: February 22, 2014   (The Chinese original was published a year ago.)

Beijing on February 21, 2014. Online photo from

Beijing on February 21, 2014. Online photo from

It was unusually cold at the beginning of 2013. All of China was enveloped in smog that would not dissipate. Finally, from north to south, people eagerly began to discuss the problems of pollution and climate change. Weibo and blogs were flooded daily with this topic, and the traditional media followed up with in-depth reports. Even academics, detached most of the time from real world issues, crossed the boundaries of academic fields to make appeals one after another, calling for the improvement of the environment with political system reform as the starting point. While winter lingered and it was almost impossible to breathe, it seemed as if the spring of an environmental movement was almost upon us.

These circumstances are similar to 1962, when the American environmental movement reached a turning point. That year, Silent Spring was published, written by the female biologist Rachel Carson. Together with her serialized article printed a bit earlier in The New Yorker, it directly pointed out the harm caused by the once widely used insecticide DDT, and harshly criticized environmentally harmful chemical magnates and other interest groups. This sparked huge controversy in America, and ushered in a tempestuous environmental movement. In China, after discovering how a fertilizer plant polluted water sources in Shacheng in 1973, the country also stopped the production of DDT, not too far behind the international trend, it seemed.

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

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

However, looking back at the last 20 to 30 years, the harm done to the environment by rapid industrialization across the country is painstakingly obvious. Environmental NGOs have developed vigorously, and anti-pollution mass protests have occurred in many places. In recent years in particular, there have been a succession of spontaneous, large-scale anti-pollution NIMBY movements, such as the anti-PX incidents in Xiamen (厦门) and Dalian (大连), the protests against molybdenum mines in Shifang, Sichuan (四川什邡), the protests against wastewater discharge in Qidong, Jiangsu (江苏启东), etc. Their scope and intensity have even exceeded the more frequent movements against violent home demolitions.

But overall, they have not developed into a full-fledged environmental movement. The people of various regions across China are often each fighting their own battles, their grievances focusing on issues with the environmental evaluation of newly-proposed projects without enough vigilant awareness of industrial waste already existing in industries, soil and river pollution, geological changes, climate change, etc. As a result, they are unlikely to stop the overall trend of environmental degradation in a fundamental way.

We must then examine the problems that exist in these isolated movements. It is important to do so in order to remobilize the environmental movement.

First, the environmental deterioration in China is related to a series of arrangements in the administrative system between the central and local governments. This system has become extremely ridged and greedy over the past ten years, and because of this, the past decade has also been the most environmentally destructive decade China has ever seen. On the surface, it is true that such degradation can be blamed on local governments indulging in high-pollution manufacturing, or even attracting investment by polluting industries in pursuit of GDP, while the so-called clearing up and rectification [of such industries] is often no more than symbolic fines, symbolic production stoppages, or at most relocation. The reality is, under the impetus of the central finance system and the performance evaluation system for government officials, local governments and industries lack the drive to rein in pollution. In other words, the root of weak environmental policy lies in local governments that do not have to be responsible to the local people, a lack of horizontal accountability, and a central government that often uses manipulation and finesse between behind-the-scenes influence and overt controls to benefit itself at the expense of the local governments and the public.

Second, an independent judiciary and fair markets are the fundamental prerequisites for an environmental movement to unfold. In the past ten years, although the Property Rights Law was passed, private property owners are still unable to obtain effective protection. It is difficult for private property owners or environmentalists to resist pollution by asserting their property rights, or to make claims and demand compensation for rights infringement by polluters.

The issue of private property has been debated non-stop ever since the economic opening and reform began. As long as this issue is not dealt with, not included in the civil code, and not recognized by the Constitution and safeguarded by an independent judicial system, it will be difficult to curb environmental pollution from the approach of civil law, and the environmental movement will not be able to take root and grow strong.

Third, the biggest sources of pollution, for example, industries that produce, process, and use fossil fuels, including China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), Sinopec, major coal producing provinces and industries, coal-fired power plants, the automotive industry, etc., have already formed strong interest groups. They respond negatively to reducing runoff and preventing pollution, but are confronted with few effective challenges. In the face of these interest groups, it is often only possible for organized civil society, such as environmental groups, media, and social movements, to have a chance at confrontation. The small minority of victims who file lawsuits based on rights violations are as futile as someone asking a tiger for its skin.

Shanghai in late 2013. Online photo.

Shanghai in late 2013. Online photo.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of environmental NGOs that have sprung up since the mid-1990s have chosen to cooperate with the government over the past decade or so. They have avoided conflict and avoided being drawn into any social movements. They have even avoided consciously promoting the development of environmental movements. Their choice of course can be attributed to the government restrictions on NGOs and environmental issues; cooperation is their only political opportunity. For example, in the anti-hydroelectricity activities in Nujiang (怒江), cooperation between environmental groups and the central government for a time won them a victory in the resistance against the local government and interest groups. However, in the long run, it is very difficult for such limited, “disposable” cooperation to yield results. The conservative approach of environmental NGOs, in the end, has lost them the opportunity to mobilize the public.

In an authoritarian age where stability maintenance is paramount, environmental groups have been placed on the radar of stability maintenance in many places as a foremost source of potential troublemakers because environmental issues involve interest groups, local governments, and an unsatisfied public. Many environmental activists have already suffered persecution and been imprisoned. Many methods of activism that were once effective, like policy lobbying, rights violation lawsuits, and environmental education, now seem to be facing high levels of risk. To the public, environmental issues, just like any other social problem, cannot be understood by simple observation or direct experience. Take the global warming problem for example. It is usually difficult for the average person to understand that the current severe winter is actually the result of global warming due to the correlation of Arctic Oscillation and the oscillation of the positive and negative changes in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The public’s indifference to pollution around them represents their typical level of environmental awareness. It is only when facing common experiences on a large scale, like heavy and lasting smog or a severe winter, that the public can finally begin to think seriously about the environment.

When the age of smog was upon us, we saw that those who spoke out first and exerted impact on the public as well as the government were not environmental organizations, but activists of China’s current social movement, namely, online opinion leaders and the large numbers of ordinary social media users.  Just as the real protesters during the Southern Weekend incident were in fact some Twitter users and average residents who carried out demonstration for several days on end outside of the building at No. 289 Guangzhou Avenue. In the age of smog, the mover of the environmental movement as well as its future development perhaps will not be the environmental NGOs that have forsaken opportunities and become conservatives, but rather the average citizens and participants in social movements other than the environmental movement. In this respect, they are quite similar to the environmental movements of North America and Europe. The hand-in-hand development of an environmental movement and an extra-party movement in Taiwan in the 1980s is also very inspirational to us.

A group of Beijing artists protested against toxic smog on February 24, 2014.

A group of Beijing artists protested against toxic smog on February 24, 2014.

For example, in the development of environmental movements in Europe, politically conservative ecological groups, like The Club of Rome and the Audubon Society, admittedly played their roles, but to a large degree, these movements benefited from the contributions of radical social movements. With the mobilization of Anti-Vietnam War protesters, an entire generation of European scholars and youth became involved in a sweeping social movement, demanding that materialistic development and the control of national welfare systems over society be changed. In the 1970s, this movement evolved into a new social movement of which the environmental movement was the main part. It can be traced back to late 1950s Germany, flourishing in the 1968 student movements in Germany and France before converging with ecologism. After the student movements in the early 1970s dissipated, they were gradually transformed into various new social movements, such as the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, and environmental movements that included the anti-nuclear movement. Environmental movements and other new social movements thus shared common networks and backgrounds from these student movements. The student movements of 1968 cultivated an entire generation of young political activists. They provided the main leaders and cadres for environmental movements later. The next step was to form parties or pass the movements onto the public.

Throughout the 1980s, green parties were established in European countries. At the same time, as mainstream politics inclined towards conservatism (for example, the Thatcher government once expressed hostility towards environmental creativity) or mainstream political parties were unwilling to take up environmental issues, Europe’s environmental groups and newly established green parties continued to advocate their environmental positions to the public. This stance and method of dissemination had a far-reaching influence. Some estimate that in 1985, there were approximately 10 million western Europeans belonging to one or more environmental groups, and the number of people participating in local environmental movements was two or three times as many. By the beginning of the 1990s, the general public in Europe had totally embraced environmentalism. Even though “un-mobilization” and institutionalization appeared to have become the trend in the environmental movement, and there were fewer protests and demonstrations in comparison to the 1980s, public opinion became the most important resource of the environmental movement. The protests did not decline with the institutionalization of the movement, rather, they became the mainstream position swinging the attitudes of political parties.

In China, it is possible that the age of smog will set in motion an opportunity for the masses to directly participate. While environmental organizations will still carefully evade the mobilization of the masses, it is possible that more radical public opinion leaders, rights defense activists, and average citizens will take on the role of the transducer. They will express their anger over the “Beijing cough” to the ruling class on behalf of the emerging urban middle class and transform the worries of the masses into pressure on all levels of government.

Young people protested against smog in Xi'an in 2013. Online photo.

Young people protested against smog in Xi’an in 2013. Online photo.

Next, for an environmental movement to expand to other domains, it will depend, to a large degree, on whether the environmental movement can truly persist. Taiwan’s experience was more politicized — the political opposition mobilized the public to participate in politics through anti-nuclear power plant and anti-pollution environmental movements. In mainland China, conditions are not ripe for doing this. But it is possible for an environmental movement to merge with another event that grips the masses. From there, it can slowly ferment, exploiting a path to mobilize society and the entire urban middle class to seek social justice.

One thing that the Chinese public knows, and has put up with, is that behind environmental pollution is an economic model by the powerful and the rich, a lack of protection for private property, and excessive exploitation of natural resources. Environmental degradation also implies the inequality of social distribution, the issue of environmental justice.

The greatest victims of the electronic waste pollution in Guiyu, Guangzhou (广东贵屿) were the workers processing trash. The victims of lead, zinc, and rare earth metal mines in Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi, and other places, are the local farmers. The main victims of smog are urban workers, the elderly, and children. Behind coal, China’s main source of energy, are the facts of the abominable production conditions for the mine workers: for every million tons of coal, there are approximately 2,000 deaths. The working class, average urban residents, and the rural poor are the direct victims of environmental pollution, the sacrificial goats of environmental injustice. They are directly damaged by pollution in every stage of production and life but have the least protections. It is difficult for them to enjoy drinking water, air, food, public sanitation, and scenery that are up to standard. They have no place to escape.

The international community has continuously demanded that China step up its emission reductions, but the Chinese government has always used environmental justice as a shield to fend off such demand. Under the Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang administration’s new political promise of a “beautiful China,” however, there seems to be, all of a sudden, some legitimate elbowroom for the issue in domestic struggles. All kinds of social movement activists can take the route of environmental justice to expand the scope of the population that could be mobilized for an environmental movement, demand change to the unequal relationships of employers and employees, press for implementation of private property rights, and resist the despicable actions of interest groups.

Thick smog shrouds China. While it might be difficult for people to see each other’s faces, the distance between the public and an environmental movement is becoming smaller than ever before.

January 29, 2013


Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) of Tsinghua University

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) of Tsinghua University

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) is a political science professor at Tsinghua University.


The War between the Government and the People over PX Projects in China, by Zhao Chu

Also by Dr. Wu Qiang:

Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview



(Translation by Jack)

Chinese original