QIDONG - At 18-years-old, Li Wei does not look like a dissident. She is mostly focused on her studies in accountancy, her friends - with whom she is always in contact - and chatting with her sister. However, none of that stopped the young girl - who has given us a false name because of the difficult situation in her hometown of Qidong - from participating in a protest that escalated in the ransacking of the Communist Party of China's (CPC) offices.
Protesters had been gathering since sunrise on Saturday July 28 in this small town one hour's drive north of Shanghai. As the day passed, the local government's offices were stormed. Administration documents flew from the windows while the angered crowd grabbed at the shirt of the PCP secretary, overcome by the extent of the movement. "We have to mobilize to protect the environment, this is our hometown," says Li Wei, sitting in the restaurant run by her parents.
Protests against polluting industries have multiplied recently due to citizens becoming increasingly aware of the ecological impacts created by economic development. Even state-run television channels are now talking about the environment as a priority in China, with young people spreading the word via micro-blogs. "People now realize that the fight against pollution is serious, as there are scarce few places in the world where industrialization is having such a heavy and direct impact on the masses," says environmentalist Ma Jun.
In Shifang, in Sichuan province, central China, people have been protesting against a copper alloy plant since the beginning of the summer: a protest that was initially started by students. Local authorities have now suspended the project. Similar protests have sprung up before, such as last August in Dalian, an industrial port in the northeast - a protest that was 12,000 strong. Authorities quickly gave up there too.
In Qidong, citizens have been protesting against a paper mill, which was going to pump out thousands of tons of wastewater near a small port. "A lot of people here earn a living from fishing. This project puts their livelihood in danger," the student argues. As soon as she heard about the problem on a web-forum one week ago, she felt she had to act: "Protecting the environment is our generation's responsibility, we can better understand these problems."
The Japanese Oji group, the developer of the mill, is claiming that the water in question is treated before being disposed of. However, the people are skeptical, convinced that something is being hidden from them: either the extent of pollution or the aftermath of the conflict between protesters and authorities. The hospital said that they have only received a dozen people with minor injuries, but rumors are spreading that there were three deaths.
"They dragged us by our hair, they punched a girl in the face"
The party is growing increasingly worried over the protests. In an editorial published on Monday July 30, the People's Daily, the Central Committee's press organ, revealed: "the public is quickly becoming aware of environmentalist issues and their own rights." In short: accusing the local government of not consulting the people, but without really proposing an alternative.
The response from authorities is characteristic of the politics of the Hu Jintao era, observes Yang Guobin, a sociologist at University of Pennsylvania who analyzed the environmental protests. "The government's reaction is typical of the wei wen approach - the politics of maintaining stability - to stop any form of protest. The approach outlines the use of violence if necessary, but if state intervention does not work, make immediate concessions in order to avoid an escalation of the movement. In any case, act quickly," sums up Yang.
Like a responsible citizen, Li Wei regrets that the protest got out of hand. "It went too far, the damage in the local authorities' offices, it's a waste because the government's money is the people's money."
But the people have not been able to properly plan, as the official procedure to file for protests had yielded no response. Also, environmental NGOs are only allowed by Beijing because they stay out of these types of conflict. "In the future, we have to put a mechanism into place, offering the possibility of consultation between different concerned parties and we have to stay ahead of new industrial projects," says Ma Jun.
At the crossroads in the center of Qidong, the public's victory is displayed on giant screens where a statement, published by the authorities in yellow characters on a red background, announces the suspension of the wastewater pipeline. However, for those still causing trouble, the state has deployed anti-riot forces, coming from all corners of Jiangsu province.
Thousands of officers in blue police uniforms occupy the streets in the town center. Some of them are napping on patches of grass, as they have not slept since they arrived here the day before. There are also armed police blocking the streets; dressed in khaki, with helmets and truncheons in hand.
For Li Wei, who had never even witnessed a protest before this, it has been a real shock. Not because of the intervention by the local police - which she has even heard mutter "jia you!" a cry of support one might hear at sporting matches - but because of real state oppression.
"They dragged us by our hair, they punched a girl in the face," she says, behind lensless glasses, as she switches to English: "I really wanted to just say to them... fuck you!"