Thu, Jan 24, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Discontent swells in China among the normally faithful

The ranks of those protesting against newspaper censorship, air pollution, toxic spills and corruption and who are demanding greater government transparency include billionaires, students, movie stars and middle-class homemakers

By Edward Wong  /  NY Times News Service, BEIJING

Hung also said, though, that most Chinese were “very practical,” and that calls to action here were “very, very far away” from the kind of revolutionary fervor that had gripped the Arab world.

The Guangzhou rallies were fueled by an outpouring of support on the Internet for Southern Weekend, where journalists were protesting recent censorship rules. Celebrity gadflies with big followings among China’s 564 million Internet users urged the journalists onward. They included Yao Chen (姚晨), a young actress who quoted Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in an online post, and Hung, who changed the logo on her microblog to that of Southern Weekend, also known as Southern Weekly. They ran risks by voicing their support; security officers reportedly interrogated some of the outspoken celebrities.

On the air pollution issue, prominent commentators have also taken to the virtual ramparts. Among those leading the calls for change is Pan Shiyi (潘時屹), a real estate tycoon. Pan’s demands that the government publicly release data on PM2.5 levels, an indicator of potentially deadly particulate matter, contributed to an official decision that 74 cities would start reporting that information this year.

These elites are not just speaking to one another; they are also giving voice to widespread concerns among the middle class. On Monday last week, in the middle of the record air pollution spike, there were 6.9 million mentions on a popular microblog platform of the term “Beijing air,” 6.7 million of “air quality” and 4.8 million of “PM2.5.”

“It’s like never before, this consensus,” said Li Bo (李波), director of Friends of Nature, an environmental advocacy group. “It took us so long to reach this consensus that China’s problems with the environment are rather serious.”

Such popular outcries can send ripples through the party’s upper ranks. Last Monday, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) criticized the Ministry of Environmental Protection and its cautious minister, Zhou Shengxian (周生賢), in an internal discussion, according to an official with ties to the ministry.

“This was a gesture that Wen had to make,” Li Bo said.

A day later, Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), who oversaw environmental policy during the past five years, somewhat defensively announced that solving environmental problems would require a long process.

The environmental official also said the pollution in northern China had deteriorated to the point that senior party officials had been forced to loosen the reins on reporting of the problem in the state news media and on news Web sites.

“Everyone is dissatisfied with the air pollution, even the Central Propaganda Department,” Li Bo said. “They have to breathe this bad air, too, after all.”

As frustration over the air quality grew, Internet users also waged an online campaign to demand official transparency on tap water. The spark came from a Southern Weekend article posted early this month about two married veteran researchers for government water safety bureaus in Beijing. The couple said that because of all the behind-the-scenes data to which they were privy, they had not let a single drop of tap water touch their lips in 20 years.

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