July 1, birthday of Chinese Communist Party. How did people at a small city of Shifang, Sichuan province, celebrate? They took to the streets to protest a planned molybdenum copper plant. In the place of fireworks, there were tear gas…and blood.
Unlike in other unrests and lucky us, Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, hasn’t taken any action to censor Shifang related searches. A reading through the Weibo posts of several participants of the protest gives us a better picture of how a student-organized “never-in-my-back-yard” protest has evolved into a bloody clash between local residents and police force.
Phase 1: Campaigning on social media
Long before local people at Shifang took to the streets, many have tried to catch public attention to what’s happening, or going to happen, in Shifang. Many accounts belong to local students shared long Weibo posts, at-ing Weibo celebrities and famous verified accounts to request repost. The plan didn’t work as well as they may expect.
Protesters’ biggest concerns seem to be health and well-being. Below is one of the many long Weibo posts where locals campaigned against the plant. The post started with “Shifang, Sichuan province, is building a molybdenum copper plant. Without doubt, Shifang will become the biggest town of cancer within years” and ended with “Who can tell me what I can do? Who can help people like me who don’t want their hometown to become hell?” The post didn’t go into details of why such health concerns arose but did mention that the plant’s open ceremony was on June 29.
Some others gave a more detailed list of the potential health problems that an overdose of molybdenum copper may cause.
Perhaps只是孩子: “Overdose of molybdenum may cause gout, arthritis, malformation and kidney problems.”
Some look more like 50% rumor + 50% truth. Real棂谶元亨 said: “Shifang, Sichuan Province, is building a molybdenum copper plant. The pollution caused by the refinery would be even worse than the radiation damage caused by the Fukushima nuclear power plants during the earthquake in Japan in 2011. An area of a 60-kilometer radius with be severely polluted. Local government officials took bribes and gave residents who lived nearby the plant a lump sum of 20k yuan to keep their mouth shut. In 5 years, Shifang will become China’s biggest town of cancer. Beg for attention to the crisis in Shifang. Beg for kind people’s help. Beg for support! Beg for spreading this information!”
Phase 2: July 1, students were out on the streets protesting and calling for support from all walks of the society.
Students were organized online, reportedly through QQ (China’s No. 1 instant messaging tool) and Baidu Tieba (BBS managed by Baidu). Protest started on July 1. At the same time, they used both online and offline tools to call for support.
QQ account “Voices of Shifang people”: “Your account was restricted. Cannot share now.”
These students made signs, T-shirts and even held a petition signing event and marched to local government building. They were also smart enough to promote their cause to everybody in Shifang – they handed out flyers during the protest, they texted call-for-support messages out and shared them on social networks, and they left call-for-participation messages on the wall.
T shirts: “Hongda molybdenum copper plant. Get out of Shifang.”
“Protect the environment at Shifang. Give my beautiful hometown back.”
The banner was signed by many others.
Text messages calling people to support the students: “People of Shifang, be united and together protect our home!…Many students and residents gathered in front of the government building, many of which skipped classed or acted against their teachers’ persuasions…It seems that the influence of these students are not strong enough! I ask all of you and your relatives to drive out your cars, block the traffic and make it big to pressure the government. This’s a choice out of no choices!”
Flyers calling people to unite: “Save Shifang. Unite the whole town.”
Messages left on the wall: “Protect our children! Down with Liu Canglong (official in charge of the project). Tomorrow morning 8am, in front of the government building.”
Apparently, Shifang government has tried to cool down students’ protest…but by the wrong means. It was reported that parents were urged to take their children home in special parent meetings and that parents who were CCP members were told if they didn’t get their children home, they’d be fired. Nothing seemed to have worked. The protest accelerated the next day, possibly out of the control of the students who organized the protest.
Phase 3: There was blood.
Upon students’ call, a bigger protest took place on July 2. This time, not only students participated and things started to grow out of control. It wasn’t clear who exactly started but the next thing people saw were images of policemen, tear gas clouds and beaten protesters. There are reports of protesters smashing government buildings and attacking police officers. More are photos of bleeding protesters and standoff between protesting crowd and local police. (More at the end of the blog post)
Mid-day on July 2, local government still seemed to try to seek a somewhat win-win resolution. They tried to convince the protesting crowd that the molybdenum copper plant won’t bring severe pollution and health issues. The information was broadcast through TV, posted on Weibo and their official website, and even texted to every local resident through China Telecom custom service number 10086.
“Hello, fellow residents! Hongda XXX project is a major national project for post-earthquake development in Shifang and uses cutting-edge technologies and facilities. The local government will definitely carry out supervision during the entire process of constructing the project. We welcome people’s supervision, too. Please don’t believe in rumors nor spread any. Please file complaints using legitimate ways. Tel: 13778213219. Email: email@example.com – Shifang People’s Government. 2012 July 2.”
By late afternoon, local government seemed to finally come to their senses and announced that they will stop the project construction.
Phase 4: More pictures but truth started to blur.
The protest went on despite the announcement of project halt. More pictures were uploaded online and protesters seemed to break into two camps.
On one hand, there are those who think that protesters failed to stay calm and peaceful. They also pitied the police because they were just doing their job but were put in a difficult situation when attacked by protesters. According to 刘恒池是Pure-Man , real clash didn’t happen until after 10pm: “I hope that people can keep calm and keep it a peaceful protest. Afterall, our ultimate goal is to stop the XXXX plant.” 昏厥中的醒悟 commented: “We all wanted a peaceful protest but some people were too angry and they attacked the police. As a result, the police officers were angry, too.”
But many held the view that “it was the PEOPLE’s police and thus they should serve the people no the government.” vivien谭: “The people were attacking using water bottle at most. But these police were fully armed with rubber clubs. We know we cannot beat the government. All we wanted is justice. Please harm ordinary people no more.”
There are also those who didn’t believe whatever was said by local government and called protester to go on. 花朵的花店梦: “They said they stopped the construction. But who knows what they will do. How can the government be trusted.”
On the other hand, reports of death, especially of teens and small kids, started to emerge, though none can be confirmed. Jason9IN said: “I heard there was a primary school student beaten to deathin the afternoon. Not sure about the details!!! Good night, everybody.” 陈竹竹cmz reported something similar: “Here is the deal. People started to move forward and stamp hard. Two were stamped to death. One was 8 years old and the other 14.” ZengQian倩 updated late at night: “I’m from Shifang. 9 trucks of troops are coming. Three people were beaten dead. All road lamps were turned off and tear gas everywhere. Save us Shifang people.”
Violence may not be part of the plan of protesters, but it didn’t happen for no reasons. Once again, Shifang government pointed figures at “overseas anti-China groups,” but honestly who are they kidding? It’s almost 8 am Beijing time now. A new day has started in Shifang.