Here are the titles of just a few of the editorials coming out in Chinese state-run media about the ongoing student-lead Sunflower Revolution in Taiwan: “Trade Protest Shames Taiwan Democracy,” “Student Movement Holds Back Taiwan,” “Protest against trade pact a silly idea in globalization era,” “Protests Blot Taiwan Image.”
The students have been protesting a new trade pact between China and Taiwan that many feel would give China too much influence in their country. And considering China’s official stance is that Taiwan is a breakaway province that it will retake by force if necessary, maybe these students are right to be worried.
The response by Chinese media has been to criticize the students and use the protests as “proof” that democracy doesn’t work. After all, in a country obsessed with stability maintenance, it is a shock to look to the other side of the Taiwan Strait and see hundreds of thousands of Chinese people somehow able to take to the streets and speak their minds.
But, even though it is kind of embarrassing for the Chinese Communist Party that the thought of closer ties with them freaks Taiwanese people out so much that they’re taking to the streets, it’s also an opportunity for the Party. An opportunity to show how much better and more efficient its technocratic, authoritarian rule is than that messy democracy stuff.
Chemical Plant NIMBYs
Take for instance, the city of Maoming in Guangdong Province. Now the local government, in conjunction with state-owned oil giant Sinopec decided on a half-billion dollar expansion of the city’s existing petrochemical plant to include a paraxylene plant.
Did they discuss every tiny little detail with the people or opposition political parties (if there were any)? No. And that’s how people want it—at least that’s what we’d think if we read the local government’s newspaper, Maoming Daily. They said paraxylene is “an important element for a happy life,” because it’s used to make things like plastic water bottles and polyester.
But before you start petitioning for a paraxylene plant in your own backyard, a, perhaps, more scientific description of the industrial chemical is that it can damage the central nervous system, liver and kidneys, and cause cancer and death. But only if you’re exposed to a lot of it.
That part of it didn’t sit too well with everyone in Maoming, and a few thousand “outlaws,” as the Maoming city government called them, took to the streets. They weren’t protesters, obviously, because local authorities had told them a demonstration was “illegal.” So by demonstrating, they were breaking the law and therefore outlaws.
So rather than descend into the kind of anarchy that Taiwan did, where protesters and students think they have a voice in the government, police came to the scene and “peacefully” dispersed the outlaws, with rubber bullets, batons, and a whole lot of brutality.
Images of unconscious protesters soaked in blood were quickly censored online, along with any search for “Maoming.”
Only Honest Officials Left
Is it possible local officials disregarded public welfare for their own profit in this highly lucrative deal with a massive state-owned enterprise? No. That’s because Maoming officials are known for their honesty. In 2012 alone, 300 Maoming officials were investigated for graft, according to Beijing News. And only two were sentenced to suspended death sentences. That probably took care of all the corruption so only honest officials must be left, right?
But sadly, all the attention China has been getting over Maoming, especially when it’s cast in relief by everything happening in Taiwan, well, it’s a tad embarrassing for the Party. So after these darn protesters kept on protesting, and all kinds of international media attention was beginning to focus on it, local authorities decided to meet with them and are now saying they won’t build the plant if the public doesn’t want it. They’re not even calling them outlaws anymore.
You see? Who needs democracy? The government does whatever it wants until it pushes people too far, an explosion happens, violent crackdown follows, word of it spreads on the Chinese Internet, censors try to keep pace deleting things, international media attention spotlights the problem, state-run media steps in to reassure everyone, and the local government bends. That’s a lot less chaotic than democracy.
And really, these fears about paraxylene are overblown. As People’s Daily pointed out in an editorial last year, “Since the first PX plant was built in Shanghai in 1985, domestically at least 10 have been added. … At present they are all operating normally, with no major accidents.”
As Western media reported, the same morning the People’s Daily editorial was published, a paraxylene plant in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province exploded.
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