Protests in China are nothing new. Widespread corruption has bred deep discontent: workers protest at the Enron-like withholding of their life savings, townspeople fight against illegal land seizures and villagers battle injustices on a daily basis.
Typically, these protests are local in nature and generally resolved with a combination of payoffs, arrests and promises of future improvement. Yet the government's days of putting out protests like bush fires may be ending. Over the past 18 months, China's environmental non-governmental organisations have organised protests that reach across provincial boundaries, engage Chinese from all social strata, garner support from China's media and directly address the issue of failed governance on a national scale.
The catalyst for these broad-based protests is the proposed construction of hundreds of dams throughout western China. China's environmental activists, meanwhile, have focused on the 'politically safe' issues of protecting biodiversity, recycling and environmental education.
Now, however, these activists have become more assertive, challenging the shoddy governance and corruption that allow dam construction to proceed unchecked.
While spearheaded by Beijing-based NGOs, the dam protests involve Chinese from all parts of the country, employ all means of communication and engage the support of central government officials.
The dam projects have also become a focal point for a broader political debate within the Chinese media. Many newspapers call directly for greater political openness, increased political participation and for strengthening the rule of law.
Similar environmental protests have evolved into demands for broader political change in other countries. It may happen in China.
China's leaders recognise that their policy options are limited: business as usual, repression or reform. Thus far, the government has demonstrated some flexibility while trying to manage this new challenge by traditional means.
Premier Wen Jiabao has halted the construction of a number of dams until environmental and social impact assessments can be undertaken. With hundreds of dams still likely to become targets for protest, pressure will only intensify for a more significant response. The government could launch a broad crackdown on such protests, although this would risk damaging China's prestige internationally and provoking larger, more violent demonstrations.
Another option is to use environmental protection to justify moving China ahead with real political reform sooner rather than later. While this is currently an unlikely outcome, as the anti-dam protests gather strength, China's leaders may realise that if they do not move quickly, they risk being swept away.
Elizabeth Economy is director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York
Copyright: Project Syndicate