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 (NGO’s) 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.