Text Messages Giving Voice to Chinese

Mobilized by cellphone, thousands marched in Xiamen against a new chemical plant. Authorities have halted the project.
Mobilized by cellphone, thousands marched in Xiamen against a new chemical plant. Authorities have halted the project. (By Wen Yunchao)

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 28, 2007

XIAMEN, China -- By the hundreds of thousands, the urgent text messages ricocheted around cellphones in Xiamen, warning of a catastrophe that would spoil the city's beautiful seaside environment and foul its sweet-smelling tropical breezes.

By promoting the construction of a giant chemical factory among the suburban palm trees, the local government was "setting off an atomic bomb in all of Xiamen," the massive message sprays charged, predicting that the plant would cause "leukemia and deformed babies" among the 2 million-plus residents of this city on China's southern rim, just opposite Taiwan.

The environmental activists behind the messages might have exaggerated the danger with their florid language, experts said. But their passionate opposition to the chemical plant generated an explosion of public anger that forced a halt in construction, pending further environmental impact studies by authorities in Beijing, and produced large demonstrations June 1 and 2, drawing national publicity.

The delay marked a rare instance of public opinion in China rising from the streets and compelling a change of policy by Communist Party bureaucrats. It was a dramatic illustration of the potential of technology -- particularly cellphones and the Internet -- to challenge the rigorous censorship and political controls through which the party maintains its monopoly on power over China's 1.4 billion people.

"I think this is a great precedent for China," said Zhong Xiaoyong, a Xiamen resident who, in his persona as the blogger Lian Yue, wrote extensively on efforts to stop construction of the factory.

Despite efforts by local Public Security Bureau technicians to block the cellphone campaign, thousands of people heeded the alarm during the last days of May. Despite warnings from city hall and a large turnout of uniformed and plainclothes police, they marched in hot, muggy weather through the streets of Xiamen to protest the chemical factory being built on Haicang, an industrial and residential island across a narrow strait from downtown Xiamen.

The demonstrations were largely peaceful, except for pushing against policemen lined up to stop the march, witnesses said. About 8,000 to 10,000 people participated the first day and half that many the second day. But something unprecedented occurred that gave the demonstrators a power even they had not envisioned: Citizen journalists carrying cellphones sent text messages about the action to bloggers in Guangzhou and other cities, who then posted real-time reports for the entire country to see.

"The second police defense line has been dispersed," Wen Yunchao, one such witness, typed to a friend in Guangzhou. "There is pushing and shoving. The police wall has broken down."

Chinese tuned in to the blogosphere in great numbers, viewing written accounts and cellphone photographs. Sites carrying the live reports recorded thousands of hits. Some sites were knocked out by security monitors. But by then their reports had bounced to other sites around the country, keeping one step ahead of the censors. Many of those tuned in were traditional newspaper and magazine reporters whose editors were afraid to cover the protests because of warnings from the Xiamen party Propaganda Department.

"The Chinese government controls the traditional press, so the news circulated on the Internet and cellphones," Wen, also a blogger, said later. "This showed that the Chinese people can send out their own news, and the authorities have no way to stop it entirely. This had so much impact. I think virtually every media worker in China was looking at it and keeping up with it."

Wen said he and his friends have since concluded that if protesters had been armed with cellphones and computers in 1989, there would have been a different outcome to the notorious Tiananmen Square protest, which ended with intervention by the People's Liberation Army and the killings of hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the streets of Beijing.

Scientist Snubbed, Blogger Steps In

The campaign against the Tenglong Aromatic PX (Xiamen) Co. Ltd. factory had started months earlier. Zhao Yufen, a U.S.-trained chemistry professor at Xiamen University and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, had organized a petition in which she and 100 other signatories argued against the 300-acre, $1.4 billion factory complex.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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