The mass protest in Shifang, Sichuan, this month over an infrastructure project feared to be polluting was not new. Similar concerns also mobilised residents in Xiamen in Fujian, Panyu in Guangdong, and Dalian in Liaoning. Like in these earlier protests, the people of Shifang won a victory, at least temporarily, when officials agreed to suspend the project.
But two things made Shifang different. First, the rally turned violent and the police used batons and tear gas to disperse the crowd. Second, many students openly took part in the demonstration. For these reasons, the Shifang movement was more overtly political, and carried shades of the one 23 years ago in Tiananmen Square.
Of course, the rally was political. Politics has everything to do with how a government makes its decisions, how it attracts investors and award projects, how it protects the environment and how corruption may fester, hidden behind these government functions. A protest against a government decision is a political act.
But politics has become taboo since the Tiananmen crackdown. Out of fear, people steer away from talk of politics to focus on 'livelihood issues'. Take a look at the media companies set up over the past 20 years or so. Almost all of them proclaim a concern for people's livelihoods. The unsaid message is: their priority is to help readers improve their lives, nothing to do with politics. With these word games - which the authorities tacitly encourage - they delude themselves and others. The result is a cowardly and weak media.
Protesters use the same word games. In the name of protecting the environment - which is an issue that concerns their living conditions, nothing to do with politics - they can take to the streets in protest without fear.
In 2009, I was in Panyu when residents rallied to oppose plans for an incinerator. In one discussion in an online forum - at the time a focal point for protest activities - both the moderator and forum users were extremely aware of the sensitivity of references to politics. Anyone seen to be steering the conversation towards the taboo areas, such as by talking about democracy and corruption, would be immediately reported and expelled from the forum. In Shifang, protesters who called for the protection of their rights at the same time held up slogans of 'We support the Communist Party of China'.
Officials find themselves in a bind. On the one hand, they are only too happy to go along with the people's aversion to politics, because this means they can avoid dealing with a 'political incident' on their watch. But on the other hand, they cannot resist deliberately politicising the protests to intimidate protesters. So officials said that while they understood that the protesters themselves had no political motive, they feared the protesters could have been made use of by foreign hostile forces.
A typical example is this open letter written on the orders of Shifang officials and repeatedly broadcast: 'July 1 is the birthday of our party, but people with ulterior motives and evil intent are making claims about the copper plant project based on hearsay. They are instigating guileless students to gather at the municipal office, which is attracting a crowd ... Do not believe in paper tigers. Such people are ruthless and aim only to stir unrest. They provide funds for anti-humanitarian groups in other countries like the Falun Gong and the Dalai Lama splittists.'
People who 'don't know the truth' are being used by people with 'ulterior motives' - sounds familiar? Exaggerating the influence of foreigners is a tactic aimed at scaring protesters into backing off. It is ridiculed by internet users, but it can be effective. Some protesters have been known to turn down interviews with the foreign media for fear of giving local authorities an excuse to target them.
The Global Times, run by the People's Daily, is the only mass media outlet in mainland China that has the privilege to freely politicise any issue or incident. Of course, it's all for the purpose of justifying government action. The paper can say without shame what official speeches and statements can't. In one recent example, the paper urged Chinese people to understand and accept some corruption in government. This theory of a 'reasonable level of corruption' caused a controversy.
So, while other media were banned from talking about Shifang, the Global Times published two editorials on consecutive days.
In one, it called for the people to understand and accept, in this case, a 'reasonable level of pollution'. It said: 'As a country with a massive population, a shortage of resources and low-level development, China doesn't have the luxury to only undertake projects that carry no environmental risks ... China needs petrochemical plants, copper projects, and many other chemical and mineral projects in order to grow. If we refuse to let them be built here, then they will have to be built somewhere else. China will be a developing country for a long time, and we'll have a lot more 'dirty' industries than do developed countries. This is the price we need to pay for a late start in development.'
In the other editorial, the paper took note of the involvement of the teenage students who 'rushed to the front line and helped adults make their voices heard'. It said students can be 'easily influenced by adults' and 'led in the wrong direction'. 'In all normal, peaceful countries, the main task of teenagers is to focus on their studies. They should not be encouraged to get involved in political incidents in their countries.'
The two editorials make clear the relationship between social issues and politics. The theory of 'a reasonable level of pollution' is a twin brother of the argument for 'a reasonable level of corruption'. So what next? 'A reasonable level of violence' and 'a reasonable level of rape'?
The paper's conclusion that students should not take part in politics also invited scorn. As internet users pointed out, what about the party activities and organisations in primary schools, secondary schools and colleges? Why do students have to stage performances on National Day and during important Communist Party events and celebrations? And why do they have to stand in line to welcome political leaders on inspection tours?
Until such time when different media sources other than the Global Times are also allowed their own political analysis of Chinese events, we'll see the same problems repeat themselves.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese