We’ve seen this movie before, and so has the rest of China. On Saturday, October 27, Tea Leaf Nation reported that protests were heating up in the coastal city of Ningbo as locals expressed opposition to the construction of a chemical refining project they feared would pollute their hometown environment. On that same day, prominent blogger and critic Li Chengpeng took to Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging platform, to post a blog entry explaining his take on the series of protests that have spruing up across China this year. Li’s essay has already been re-posted over 100,000 times.
Although Chinese authorities have since said they would back down from the proposed project, Li’s angry and vivid description of Chinese government remains relevant–and, for that matter, unblocked by Chinese censors. Weaving political commentary, personal experience, and powerful (if conflicting) metaphors, it is a classic example of viral political speech in China’s blogosphere.
Li begins by describing his childhood encounter with environmental degradation. He writes how a tobacco factory for a popular Chinese cigarette-maker seemed to spring up overnight in his home town. “Every day, we would use our red scarves to cover our noses as we ran on around the track, and our teacher would yell at us: ‘Don’t you support national construction? How can you be afraid of a little smog?‘… At that time, it was a serious crime not to support national construction.”
Perhaps because residents were cowed by potential charges of being “unsupportive,” Li’s own neighborhood began to change. “Little by little, neighborhoods turned into factories, and our hometown turned into an industrial area. Little by little, we lost the right to make decisions about our own lives, lost it as if we had never had it at all.” Li then asks rhetorically, “How many years now has ‘supporting national construction’ taken precedence over our ability to control our own lives?”
Li draws a parallel between the “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) protests that occurred in Shifang in early July, Qidong in late July, and now Ningbo. He writes, “Just looking at pictures, I can’t tell the difference between these three cities … masses of people running, young people being beaten, old people crying, and ‘brave warriors’ dressed in mighty black uniforms, dragging the women they have just arrested across the ground, throwing them in armored vehicles.” The problem that links all of these incidents is what Li calls an inability of Chinese to control their own destinies. But construction should be about more than short-term gain.
Li writes, “As far as ‘supporting national construction,’ goes, I think that first and foremost it should mean protecting the health of the next generation; that’s the most far-sighted interpretation of it. When you want to build something, but we have the right to keep it from being built—that’s the best kind of national construction.”
At one point in his post, Li describes how locals in one Western city were beaten when they rallied against a planned chemical factory. Li spoke with the local cadre, who “shook his head and sighed, ‘You see…These days, people are so selfish, and they don’t understand science. This project will be good for them too, you know.’” Li ultimately concludes that “the Chinese model for power is too arrogant. The more arrogant it is, the lonelier it becomes.” Li makes an odd but vivid analogy: China’s government is like an “autistic giant,” one “incapable of interacting with society, incapable of allowing society to help it.”
Li believes that a failure to interact lies at the root of the decay of the Chinese Communist Party’s “model.” He complains, “They have forgotten, with the passage of 63 years, their promise to consult with the people about important matters.”
Li lays out a framework for the development of “recent events” in China, which appear to refer to civic disturbances and “NIMBY” uprisings. Tea Leaf Nation has helpfully numbered this seemingly typical progression:
1. The government quietly decides on a project;
2. The scattered masses gradually find out about it;
3. The government pays them no mind;
4. Even more people take to the streets;
5. The government beats and arrests people;
6. It goes viral on Weibo;
7. The whole country gets angry;
8. The government says it will “patiently and attentively listen to the people’s voices and fully consider the people’s demands for change.”
At play, Li writes, is something called “the Lucifer effect.” He compares the Party government to a fallen angel, “who thought he was always right.” He writes, “Our officials think they represent the truth, that they are fighting a holy war, and that they stand for the interests of the people. In the end, plunder is called development and thieves are called angels.”
Li closes by assailing the government’s apparent efforts to be more responsive. He believes the question is not whether the government sometimes “listens attentively,” but whether it ever “has the power to punish those who hold opposing views.” As long as it keeps that power in reserve, Li writes, it will continue to be an autistic giant—or is that a fallen angel?