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Chinese Protesters See Greater Online Freedom About the Environment

When residents of Shifang, Sichuan, started worrying about the environmental impact of a planned molybdenum copper plant, they knew what to do. As thousands of protesters, including students, took to the streets on July 1, they were already fanning concerns and building opposition on the Internet. “Without doubt, Shifang will become the biggest cancer town in years,” said a post on Sina Weibo, one of China’s two Twitter-like micro-blogging sites. “Overdose of molybdenum may cause gout, arthritis, malformation and kidney problems,” warned another, reported the China Elections & Governance website.
After several days of protests drew national attention and concern, largely through the wildfire-like spread online of news, images, and video of the event, including local police using tear gas on demonstrators, officials agreed to halt the plant’s opening. “The information and pictures shared through Weibo aroused national attention,” says Ma Jun, the Beijing-based environmentalist and founder of the Institute for Public & Environmental Affairs. “Many people followed Shifang very closely, and the general view is that it was a positive decision to stop the construction.”
A wave of online activism and information aimed at addressing surging environmental threats, is sweeping China. Notable examples: health hazards related to Beijing’s toxic air, which have been publicized widely through both the Weibo account of the U.S. embassy that provides hourly readings of air quality, plus micro-bloggers such as real estate tycoon and Beijing resident Pan Shiyi. Others blog regularly on how environmental contamination affects food safety and water quality. Although there is no official count, Ma estimates that well more than 1,000 Weibo sites focus regularly on environmental issues, including two he maintains, one on Sina Weibo and the other on the second main micro-blogging site, Tencent Weibo.
“In China there is a significant lack of tools to disseminate information. Before, we were almost fully dependent on the official media, but sometimes they were very hard to rely on,” says Ma. “Now Weibo has become almost like a self-media. It provides another way for the message to be disseminated to the public. And it has created a kind of forum for people to have debate and discussion over hot issues.”
Protesters have used the Internet and simple phone texting to publicize projects seen as environmentally damaging before. Notable examples include protests against a paraxlene plant in the coastal city of Xiamen in 2007, the extension of the Maglev (magnetic levitation) high-speed train in Shanghai in 2008, and the construction of a garbage incinerator in Guangzhou in 2009. But it wasn’t until protests by more than 12,000 people, organized and publicized nationally online, successfully led to the closure of another paraxlene (or PX) plant in Dalian last November, that it became clear just how important social media had become, says environmentalist Ma.
“China’s environmental decision-making process before has not been open and participatory. It has only involved a highly limited number of officials, developers, and some experts, and they often compromised at the expense of the environment and communities,” says Ma. “Social media like microblogs provide a platform for people not just to access information but to share information and have an online forum to debate and discuss issues. It is enhancing transparency and participation by the public and transforming China’s environmental decision-making process.
“We have never seen this in our history,” he says, crediting the use of the Internet as key to stopping both the Dalian and Shifang plants.
Meanwhile, China’s official media have been far more cautious, and as in Shifang, often hold off on reporting protests until they have been resolved.
“True, residents’ lack of scientific knowledge and excessive concern for the environment may prevent some worthwhile projects from being launched. But their growing awareness about environmental protection and the protection of their rights and interests is good for the country and the long-term healthy development of the economy,” wrote the official China Daily in a July 4 editorial on Shifang published after the protests had ended.
One reason online activism works is the pervasive use of the Internet. China now has 538 million Internet users, according to the latest figures released by the China Internet Network Information Center, with 39.9 percent of the population online. That’s up 25 million since the beginning of the year, with much of the growth driven by Web surfing on smartphones. Indeed, the number of those using the mobile Internet rose 22.2 percent from a year earlier (faster than the overall growth of 11 percent), to 388 million, according to the biannual report released by the government-endorsed industry group on July 19. And China today has 300 million micro-bloggers, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
Beijing propaganda officials, of course, expend great effort in trying to control what appears online. The so-called Great Firewall, the software monitoring system that searches for keywords that are considered sensitive, such as “Dalai Lama” and “Tiananmen Massacre,” ensures that most in China are banned from viewing information deemed too sensitive. Authorities also require China’s major Internet companies to practice self-censorship, monitoring and deleting comments viewed as unacceptable. And earlier this year, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo both had their commentary sections disabled for three days from March 31 to April 3, following online reports that a coup might have happened in Beijing.
But when it comes to environmental issues, authorities appear to have a more lenient attitude—as when they did not stop the crescendo of online chatter that grew during the Shifang protests. “Environmental and food safety affects everyone. In China, even the most privileged people can’t live in a bubble,” says Jeremy Goldkorn, founding director of Beijing-based Danwei, a China Internet and media research firm. “Repression of dissenting viewpoints can be very harsh in China. With food safety and environmental issues, there is a little bit more room for people to make noise.”
Roberts is Bloomberg Businessweek’s Asia News Editor and China bureau chief.