Communication is Inevitable

The PRC has recently experienced heightened instances of mass citizen unrest related to social inequalities, labor disputes and most recently, public safety and environmental concerns. As mass protests are a common occurrence in China, the seemingly constant discord has attracted international and local awareness which, despite government censorship efforts, continues to grow namely through microblogging sites. While the CCP consistently attempts to mask instances of unrest, such efforts are becoming progressively futile as communication control proves unfeasible.

The month of June saw several major mass disturbances between police and migrant workers, which received recognition from major international news outlets, yet lacked objective and complete coverage from the Chinese media. When a 3-day riot broke out after a pregnant street vendor was reportedly knocked to the ground by police, authorities downplayed the altercation, maintaining that the vendor “fell over” and understating the number of “troublemakers” at several hundred, though tens of thousands are said to have taken to the streets. Officials censored videos of the incident, writing it off as “just an ordinary clash between street vendors and local public security people, used by a handful of people who wanted to cause trouble”. Unfortunately, these clashes are indeed all too “ordinary” as reports of enraged migrant workers continue to rise. According to Sun Liping, a sociologist at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, China experienced 180,000 “mass incidents” in 2010, double the number in 2006.

A different kind of mass unrest surfaced when last month’s high speed train crash emphasized significant online government criticism, found primarily in blogs and public awareness campaigns which highlight issues otherwise concealed by the CCP. Microblogging sites beat out state media when they received firsthand information about the crash ahead of other news outlets. Despite heavy censorship, criticism of China’s railway officials, failed safety mechanisms and hasty rail construction swept the internet. Meanwhile, CCP authorities enacted a news blackout on the disaster, reporting only official government releases and positively-angled stories about the crash, such as the rescue of a toddler. According to The New York Times, official orders forced newspaper editors to tear up their Saturday editions, replacing investigative articles and commentaries with cartoons or unrelated features. Though the CCP tried in vain to keep the disaster under wraps, the cause was lost before it began; public outrage was widespread and attempts to cloak the incident only fueled resentments. The government may have truncated the issue in the mainstream media, but there was no way to hide the tens of millions of online posts questioning the crash.

Another exceptional demonstration took place in the city of Dalian this month when affluent residents called for the removal of the Fujia factory, a paraxylene plant located on the city’s coast. After learning that the potentially hazardous chemicals produced by the plant could endanger the entire city in the event of a disaster, disgruntled residents organized a sizable rally via social networks and mobile phones, despite increased censorship efforts. Thousands flooded the streets to voice their dissatisfaction. Though the government had already decided to move the factory prior to the protest, the turmoil apparently accelerated the process as the government promised to shut down the plant immediately. While public outcries from the lower rungs are commonplace, it is rare to see such a sizable demonstration from educated middle class citizens. The unusually prompt government response seen in Dalian seems to reinforce the notion that there is one rule for the urban rich and another for the rural poor in China. It may also indicate a sign of the Communist Party in retreat, though some discredit this belief, pointing out that civilians ultimately have no decision-making power; residents and netizens can protest, but they cannot propose.

Whether or not Chinese citizens are gaining significant ground in influencing government decision making, it is certain that public rallies have become easier to organize and harder to conceal. The CCP strives to keep the people of China in the dark, but this may soon become an unattainable goal as Chinese netizens continue to expand their horizons.

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