“A Violent New Tremor in China’s Heartland”

IHT’s Rendezvous Blog on the Shifang protests:

“It is the 4th of July — 236 years ago, America achieved independence and 236 years later, the Shifang people are fighting for their own rights and confronting the government,” said an unidentified microblogger who was quoted by Reuters on Wednesday.

“The government has repeatedly squandered the people’s patience. It is time for us to be independent.”

The police warned that anyone using the Internet, cellphones or text messages to spread news about the protest would be “severely” punished. But there was a flood of photos and microblog posts, plus some video, and a widely circulated piece from Han Han, perhaps China’s most famous blogger.

As my colleague Keith Bradsher reported, the Shifang protest was the most-searched subject Tuesday on Sina Weibo, “despite what appeared to be the deleting of postings by censors.”

A Weibo microblogger named Lychee, who said her foot had been cut to the bone in the melee, wrote, “We simply hope that our hometown is free from pollution. That’s all. Is that too much to ask?!”

Shifang and its surrounding towns were heavily damaged in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed some 70,000 people. Since then, the central government has invested heavily to rebuild the Shifang area, the official news agency Xinhua has reported, although anger over shoddy school construction in the province led to sharp confrontations between the parents of dead schoolchildren and government officials.

Many mourning ceremonies turned into protests, until the government began to forcefully stifle the demonstrations.

In the long term, however, the elite could be in trouble if Chinese citizens come to believe they can mobilize effectively around environmental concerns — or any other collective complaint like food safety, official corruption, land grabs, housing prices, forced abortions, a growing wealth gap, Internet censorship, you name it.

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