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Chinese whispers get louder

world Updated: Nov 14, 2008 00:51 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times
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A new age of protests is growing up across the nation where the latest winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought — Chinese political activist Hu Jia — is jailed as a ‘dangerous dissident’.

This week, the beaches of China’s Goa — the southern city of Sanya — saw stranded tourists as hundreds of taxi drivers dared to strike.

In Jiaxing, an eastern boomtown of four million, residents raised a four-day stink by deflating tyres and blocking garbage trucks to protest the allegedly cancer-causing pollution from an incineration plant.

Earlier this month in China’s fourth-largest city Chongqing, usually mild-mannered cabbies smashed taxi windows and refused to drive. In the economic zone Shenzhen near Hong Kong, a mob gathered after a biker died trying to dodge a checkpoint, and ransacked a police station in a clash that lasted hours.

Almost 20 years since the landmark student protests at Tiananmen Square, the Chinese leadership is challenged by unusual domestic defiance at the local level.

“The big question now is the new style of middle-class protests,’’ says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, USA, who has researched protest movements in China.

It used to be the Chinese students and intellectuals who led protests, Wasserstrom pointed out at a lecture in Beijing this week.

But this year began with middle-class Shanghai residents spreading text messages to organise peaceful strolls in January, to protest the environmental and health hazards of a proposed extension of the super-fast magnetic levitation train through their neighbourhoods.

Amateur videos of the protest strolls were uploaded online, stirring further debate in the world’s largest online community of Chinese netizens.

In May, at the height of Chinese patriotism during the Olympic torch relay, the Sichuan earthquake sparked an online critique of construction standards in flattened rural schools.

During the 1980s-90s, says Wasserstrom, the question was whether China would modernise effectively.

In a turning point in the discontent, today’s protests are a critique of that modernisation.

Beijing keenly tracks these protests and the daily opinions of its netizens. “The strategy post-’89, is that the government is willing to treat gently localised protests, but clampdown sharply on protests that draw people from other parts of the country,’’ says Wasserstrom.

So, Chongqing made peace. The cabbies even signed letters promising to serve in a ‘civilised manner.’