Protests in China are nothing new. By some accounts, Chinese officials currently negotiate upwards of 50,000 "major incidents" annually. Widespread corruption has bred deep discontent: workers protest the Enron-like bilking of their life savings, townspeople fight against illegal land seizures, and villagers battle injustices -- small and large -- 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. Occasionally, China's government takes action against local officials whose crimes are considered egregious. As long as protests remain local, however, they can be managed as isolated cases that won't pose a broader challenge or spark a movement toward systemic change.
Yet the government's days of putting out protests like brush fires may be ending. Over the past year and a half, China's environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have organized 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. Dam construction in China has never been open to public debate. 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, launching campaigns against a number of proposed dams along the Nu and Jinsha rivers in Yunnan and the Min River in Sichuan. They still raise traditional issues of biodiversity loss, destruction of sites of natural beauty and cultural importance, and social justice issues surrounding resettlement.
But now they also challenge the shoddy governance and corruption that allow dam construction to proceed unchecked, without environmental impact assessments, as local officials siphon off resettlement funds and ignore the claims of local villagers.
The political stakes are high, and China's hydropower interests are strong. Environmental activists who are currently battling to halt damming and flooding in the culturally and scenically renowned region of the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan are battling hydropower kingpin Li Xiaopeng (
Dam protests can often be volatile. In October, tens of thousands of villagers protesting inadequate resettlement compensation held a local official captive for several hours before 10,000 People's Armed Police officers rescued him.
These protests are striking not only for the sensitive nature of the issues they address, but for the broad-based support they have elicited. 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.
Beijing-based NGOs are allying with local Sichuan NGOs to launch Internet campaigns, distribute petitions, and mobilize villagers.
In one case, environmental activists took villagers from a proposed dam site to another town to see firsthand how poorly others had fared in the dam resettlement process.