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On 28 July there were violent clashes between thousands of local residents and police in the Chinese city of Qidong, north of Shanghai. The protesters were concerned about pollution from a Japanese paper factory’s planned new sewage outlet, which they thought could contaminate drinking water and harm the city’s fishing industry. They overturned several police cars, stripped the mayor of his shirt and entered local government offices, where they found expensive bottles of alcohol, condoms and cigarettes, all things that officials are often given as bribes. Some demonstrators were beaten by riot police. The protest came to an end when it was announced that the sewage pipe project would be permanently cancelled.

Environmental protests are on the rise in China. In Xiamen in 2007 a campaign organised by text message prevented a chemical plant from being built near the city centre. In August 2011, demonstrators in Dalian, again using text messages and social media to organise themselves, forced another plant to close. In both cases, crowds of more than 10,000 were able to gather. The authorities tried to censor online discussion of the incident, but the news spread anyway.

Early last month, people in Shifang, in Sichuan province, gathered to voice their opposition to plans to build a copper smelting plant. The police fired tear gas and sonic bombs on the crowd, but few arrests were made and the project was cancelled. The success of the protests was widely discussed on various weibo sites, most of which were left uncensored (which seems to contradict a recent study arguing that the main aim of internet censorship in China is not to block criticism of the government, but to prevent collective action).

One reason that news of the successful protests has been allowed to spread may be the Chinese government’s wish to present itself as promoting environmentally progressive policies. But this is sometimes at odds with attempts to stimulate the slowing economy. The copper smelting plant in Shifang was supposed to be at the centre of a scheme to boost the region after the destruction caused by the 2008 earthquake. A recent editorial in China Daily appeared to argue that the real problem is a public-relations failure by the Qidong and Shifang authorities:

maybe the environmental concern and worry of the two cities’ residents were not totally based on informed judgment… had both local governments communicated and interacted properly with the local residents on the projects they had been planning, they could have avoided the embarrassment of facing demonstrations.

This argument tacitly invokes the proverb that ‘heaven is high, and the emperor is far away’, which is often used to exempt the central authorities from blame (though it’s extremely unlikely that such major investments were not approved by Beijing).

The response to the protests in Qidong and Shifang suggests that the government accepts it’s impossible to block all forms of dissent. Calls for political reform tend to be quickly suppressed (as are demonstrations in sensitive border regions like Xinjiang or Tibet). But the authorities can afford to respond more leniently to the environmental demands of urban middle-class citizens. It remains to be seen, however, if the apparent concessions in Qidong and Shifang are more than gestures of temporary appeasement. There have been reports that the Dalian plant has now reopened, and the paper factory in Qidong resumed operations on 31 July.

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