[dsl:video youtube=”TSYQ8BkD_58&feature=related” size=”small”]
Shanghai is famous for many things, from its eye-catching architecture to its historic role linking China to the world. But within the People’s Republic of China, the city also is revered for its central role in twentieth-century protests.
In the early 1900s, Shanghai workers staged some of China’s first strikes. The Cultural Revolution began in Beijing in 1966 with the Red Guards but peaked in the Shanghai uprising of 1967, when revolutionary groups, modeling themselves after the Paris Commune, took over the city government and the Communist Party Committee. And though the great upheaval of 1989’s Beijing Spring is rightly associated with Tiananmen Square, the student-led protests that paved the way for that epochal struggle took place two and a half years earlier, in Shanghai’s counterpart to that plaza, People’s Square.
This is worth remembering in light of what’s been happening lately in China’s largest city. For the last two weekends, protesters opposed to plans to extend the city’s fastest-on-earth magnetic levitation train–the maglev–took to the streets in marches that organizers dubbed “collective walks,” to avoid seeming too controversial when confronting a regime that often deals harshly with acts of dissent.
The maglev, which can rocket passengers at record-breaking speeds well over 200 miles per hour, currently connects the Pudong airport at the eastern edge of the metropolis to a nearby subway station. The authorities want it to do much more. The first extension in the works would link Pudong’s new airport to the old Hongqiao airport west of the city.
This has angered residents of some largely middle-class neighborhoods through which the new rail line would run. They claim that proximity to the path of noisy maglev trains would make their property values plummet, disturb the tranquillity of their homes and perhaps even pose health hazards to their children.
This is not the first time a novel mode of transportation has triggered a Shanghai protest. A century ago, rickshaw pullers smashed trams that threatened their livelihood. But as a longtime student of Shanghai protests, I can say with conviction that the anti-maglev protests aren’t quite like anything seen in the early 1900s or even Tiananmen times. Describing mass actions as “collective walks” is new, as is coordinating actions via text messages and having videos of marches uploaded onto YouTube.
This decidedly twenty-first-century form of protest in Shanghai resonates with recent demonstrations in other Chinese cities–notably the 2007 protests in Xiamen, again mostly led by members of a burgeoning new middle class, which successfully blocked the opening of a chemical plant. Both protests involve specific goals being pursued by people who do not challenge the government’s legitimacy but simply call on it to do a better job of listening to those in whose name it claims to rule–and make good on its own stated goals, such as working to improve the material well-being and quality of life of the Chinese population.