Correction to This Article
A Page One photograph with a Jan. 26 article about railroad protests in Shanghai was incorrectly credited to the reporter. The photo was taken by a protester, who provided it on the condition of anonymity.

Shanghai's Middle Class Launches Quiet, Meticulous Revolt

Video
Thousands of Shanghai homeowners protest against a proposed extension of the high-speed magnetic levitation train. The proposed extension has angered thousands of residents who fear noise, vibration, radiation and wind from the train. They are shouting " Reject the Maglev" and "Protect Our Homes." Video courtesy of an anonymous protester.

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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 26, 2008

SHANGHAI -- Bundled against the cold, the businessman made his way down the steps. Coming toward him in blue mittens was a middle-aged woman.

"Do you know that we're going to take a stroll this weekend?" she whispered, using the latest euphemism for the unofficial protests that have unnerved authorities in Shanghai over the past month.

He nodded.

Behind her, protest banners streamed from the windows of high-rise apartment blocks, signs of middle-class discontent over a planned extension of the city's magnetic levitation, or maglev, train through residential neighborhoods.

The couple checked to make sure no plainclothes police were nearby and discussed where security forces had been posted in recent days. "Did you take any photos?" the man asked. Yes, she said, promising to send them to him so he could post the evidence online.

In a minute, the exchange was over, but the news would soon be added to the steady flow of reports being posted on blogs and community bulletin boards, as well as in housing compounds along the proposed extension -- which residents contend will bring noise pollution and possibly dangerous radiation to their neighborhoods.

The sudden "strolls" by thousands of office workers, company managers, young families and the elderly in this sleek financial hub are the latest chapter in a quiet middle-class battle against government officials. The protesters are going about their mission carefully, and many speak anonymously for fear of retribution in a country that stifles dissent.

The Communist Party has a massive security apparatus that closely monitors what it views as subversive activity. The party sometimes allows public protests if they serve its political interests, such as the ouster of corrupt officials.

But the protests here have been unusual. They are led by homeowners and professionals -- people who may not previously have had much to complain to the government about but whose awareness of their individual rights has grown along with their prosperity. Police, who have routinely put down rural protests by poor farmers, have found it more difficult to intimidate an affluent, educated crowd in a major city.

The demonstrations do have at least one recent precursor, and it is one Shanghai residents acknowledge using for inspiration. In the picturesque seaside city of Xiamen, thousands of middle-class residents have managed at least temporarily to halt the construction of a $1 billion chemical factory because of environmental concerns. Demonstrators in that city, in Fujian province, relied on the Internet and cellphone text messaging to organize strolls and other opposition.

"We learned from Xiamen," said Gu Qidong, 36, a Shanghai protester and freelance sales consultant in the health-care industry. "We have no other way besides this. We once asked if we could apply for a march permit, and the police said they would never approve it."

As in Xiamen, Shanghai residents have spent countless hours researching their cause. They have posted fliers sprinkled with such phrases as "electromagnetic compatibility" and wooed residents and news media with slick PowerPoint presentations that question whether a 55-yard-wide safety buffer envisioned for each side of the rail extension would be sufficient to keep noise and vibration from reaching their apartments.


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