Recent events in the port city of Dalian in north-east China where public protests forced the local Government to accept a demand for closing down a chemical plant following an accident and for re-locating it elsewhere show a new style of political management. This new style is marked by sensitivity to public opinion and a willingness to respond to reasonable public pressure instead of trying to suppress it as used to be done in the past.
The plant produces paraxylene (PX), a petrochemical used for the production of polyester film and fabrics. Last week, huge waves caused by a storm breached a dike built to protect the plant from floodwaters. Residents were concerned that a flood could damage the plant and cause it to release toxic chemicals.
Details of the breach and the dangers that could be posed to the environment of the city and the lives of its residents by any damage to the plant were disseminated by many netizens through Weibo, a Chinese microblog service similar to the Twitter.
Details of the breach and the dangers that could be posed to the environment of the city and the lives of its residents by any damage to the plant were disseminated by many netizens through Weibo, a Chinese microblog service similar to the Twitter. This led to a large number of residents —about 12,000 according to one estimate— demonstrating in the streets and outside the local municipal office on August 14, demanding that the plant should be immediately shut down and re-located elsewhere.
Instead of seeking to suppress the demonstration as they would have normally done, the local authorities accepted the public demand for shutting down the plant to prevent any damage and eventually re-locating it elsewhere. Initially, the authorities did try to prevent the dissemination of the information about the breach and the call for demonstrations through Weibo, but subsequently gave up the attempt.
In a refreshing departure from past practices, the Government-controlled Xinhua news agency itself disseminated details of the breach and the demonstrations in an apparent attempt to prevent the circulation of exaggerated rumours. There was a greater transparency in the coverage of the incident and the public demonstrations and a greater willingness on the part of the authorities to accept the reasonableness of the public expression of concern and to respond to it.
Instead of seeking to suppress the demonstration as they would have normally done, the local authorities accepted the public demand for shutting down the plant to prevent any damage and eventually re-locating it elsewhere. I
Commenting on the way the local authorities dealt with the incident, the Party-controlled “Global Times” wrote as follows on August 15:
“The Dalian incident indicates social progress, as it shows the public has more opportunities to be heard. In Dalian, their opinion was treated with respect. But it is worth mentioning that while there are more channels for individuals and groups to express their opinions, it is essential that a distinction be made for rational opinion. There should also be channels for other voices to prevent a single opinion from being regarded as the mainstream.
“The incident showed that the demands of the public are taken seriously by the Chinese government. The pace of information disclosure and releasing of the official statement may not have been quick enough, but the adjustments that the government made were swift. Both the public and the government have begun adapting both their language and actions to a more democratic time.
“It should not be simply seen as a victory of a “protest.” In fact, in China, reasonable public appeals will eventually be accepted by the government. New technological tools, such as Weibo, have strengthened communication between the public and the government. Protest, as a means of expressing opinions, will not likely become the main way Chinese people will make their voices heard.
“China’s reform is being advanced by various minor incidents, and this reform has, in turn, created more room for understanding and tolerance.
“Chinas reform is being advanced by various minor incidents, and this reform has, in turn, created more room for understanding and tolerance.”
“What the Dalian incident has shown is China’s adaptability and problem-solving capability, not the risk that it may flounder over an emergency.”
In a report on the increasing role of microblogs in mobilising public opinion in China disseminated on August 14, the Xinhua said:
“ A decade ago, the most favoured medium for Chinese people to air their complaints was perhaps through the state-owned China Central Television network.
“However, the Internet has superseded television as the most popular means for the airing of discontent, with microblogs leading the charge.