They're well-off and angry, and they're not going to take the maglev lying down

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 January, 2008, 12:00am

The distance from the Far East Imperial Garden housing estate to the Dianpu River is a mere 60 metres, a stretch of grass and trees where elderly people exercise and mothers stroll with their children even on a winter's day.

The idyllic view will change in the next two years as Shanghai runs a high-speed magnetic levitation train right through the park to improve transport and help develop China's next generation of trains.

In a rare show of public defiance, thousands of residents affected by the extension of the maglev line staged a week of protests, including one in the heart of the city on January 12. When the Shanghai People's Congress gathers for its annual meeting on Thursday, protesters have vowed to continue the fight.

'The maglev track starts right here,' said Chen Xinhua , stamping his foot on a concrete flood barrier along the river for emphasis. 'It's only 50 metres to people's homes. If you go outside, you will be exposed to contamination.'

Residents fear the noise and the vibrations, though the maglev generates less than a conventional train by floating on a magnetic 'cushion' between the vehicle and the track. More worrisome to them is a perceived health threat from radiation, although there is scarce scientific evidence. But at the heart of public anger is economics: people to be evicted want higher compensation, while those who own houses along the future maglev line worry it will erode property values.

The January 12 demonstration outside the main government office - attended by an estimated 2,000 to 6,000 people - was the city's largest since anti-Japan protests in April 2005, when 20,000 took to the streets.

Other protests have been equally public, outside the Grand Gateway Mall in commercial Xuhui district on January 6 and the Number One Department Store on busy Nanjing Road on January 13.

Taking a cue from protests against a chemical plant in the southern city of Xiamen in Fujian province last year, some carried signs saying 'out for a walk' to avoid appearing anti-government.

On Saturday, the Shanghai municipal government promised to hold another round of public discussions on the maglev line.

An announcement on the website of the Shanghai Urban Planning Administration said the authorities were studying feedback and would seek public opinion again soon. Residents could still send their opinions and suggestions, it said.

Shanghai has a history of protests against evictions for development projects, which typically involve demolition of old housing inhabited by the urban poor. But the maglev has created a new breed of protesters, middle class people with money and even political power.

They have shown the ability to mobilise large numbers of people and air their grievances through several channels: through the internet, contacting media and using the law.

Mr Chen is one such protester. He drives to his job at a foreign-invested electronics company in his Volkswagen Passat. The value of his 138-square-metre flat has fallen from about 12,000 yuan to 8,000 yuan per square metre due to its proximity to the maglev route.

He has watched protests in the past, but when he found the maglev would pass within a hundred metres of his home, he joined the demonstrations and began writing carefully researched letters to the government's complaint office.

The government is in a bind over whether to crack down on the protesters, as the middle class helps keep the Communist Party in power in return for improved living standards. 'It's dangerous for the government. The middle class is their main base of support,' a western diplomat said.

Shanghai had several protests against the maglev last year, but they flared again after the city's urban planning bureau quietly posted a map of a new route for the maglev on December 29. Following the public outcry last year, the city temporarily suspended the project but is now pushing ahead for completion before the World Expo in 2010.

Shanghai's existing maglev line opened in 2003. It whisks passengers 30km between the Longyang Road metro station and the international airport at a maximum speed of 430km/h.

The city wants to extend the line a further 32km to the expo site, the south railway station and the old airport, and eventually on to Hangzhou city in neighbouring Zhejiang province .

The government said it had 'amply listened to the opinions of the public and experts' by routing the train through less populated areas.

Some of the fiercest protests have come from residents of western Minhang district. Residents of the Pingyanglu Garden community were resettled there after being evicted for other development projects, so this marks the second time their lives have been affected.

Residents have hung banners out their windows along the river to express their opposition. 'Party Secretary Hu, Premier Wen, save the elderly and the children,' said one, appealing to the country's top leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao .

The protests are now in a lull after the government took a hard line while at the same time sending officials into communities to listen to residents. 'We hope residents along the line will use legal and reasonable channels of appeal to report their suggestions and opinions and be conscious of protecting social order,' a government statement said.

Domestic media have quoted officials as saying that radiation produced by the train is less than a television or hair-dryer, but the government's credibility is so low few residents believe those claims.

Sun Zhang , a professor of Tongji University's School of Communications and Transportation who has advised on the project, does not believe protests will derail the maglev.

'The government has spent too much money [to cancel the project],' Professor Sun said, estimating spending for the original line at 10 billion yuan. State media estimates the extension might require at least 16 billion yuan, as the more roundabout route raises costs.




You may also like