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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.
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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.
It would be a mistake to ignore parallels between the current Shanghai protests and earlier events in the city’s history that began with daily-life concerns and calls simply for greater government responsiveness, yet ultimately swelled into broader movements that challenged the legitimacy of an authoritarian ruling party. Protests of this sort took place in the 1940s against the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek, triggered by hyperinflation. When students of the Tiananmen generation first took to the streets in Shanghai in the mid-1980s, their grievances were largely about the living conditions on campuses but mushroomed into a much more radical set of demands that caught the world’s attention in the Beijing Spring of 1989.
One enduring tendency in events of this sort, which is again seen in the anti-maglev agitation, is for protesters to play upon official slogans. The Communist Party has made a fetish of late of valuing “harmony” and “stability” and introducing reforms that improve the quality of life of ordinary people, in part by allowing them to own their own property. The anti-maglev protesters play upon these stated goals, insisting that the new rail line will undermine the “harmony” and “stability” of their neighborhoods and make their living conditions worse.
Protesters insist that what matters most to them is something very basic, which the regime has also promised to deliver–a government that will listen to the concerns of citizens and make a meaningful response.
The slogans of the Nationalists in the 1940s and the Communists in the 1980s were not identical, but the tendency of protesters to call on these regimes to live up to their stated ideals was the same. So, too, was the cry for officials to demonstrate a greater readiness to listen.
There are parallels here even with the Tiananmen protests, which Westerners often misremember as involving the same kind of demand for regime change that was heard that year in places like Poland. By contrast, in China even then the core demand of protesters was simply that the Communist Party make good on its promises–especially its promise to fight corruption–and engage in a true dialogue. Chinese students were willing to have Communist Party rule continue, but insisted that the country needed that organization to be run by people who would be more transparent, avoid nepotism (the most galling incidents of corruption often involve the family members of high-ranking officials), allow a greater degree of individual freedom and show concern for the people’s welfare.
If the current protests call to mind a single historical moment, it is not 1989 but 1986. And this is not just because protesters are again gathering in the same part of People’s Square where I saw students congregate a generation ago.
Then, as now, protesters were largely members of a highly articulate group with reason to feel good about the overall direction in which the country was heading. But this didn’t stop them from desiring a government less arbitrary and more willing to listen to their concerns.
The students of 1986 talked more about abstract ideals–including democracy–than the anti-maglev protesters have. But they also had specific grievances linked to daily life. Some complained about mandatory morning calisthenics. Others were angered that security guards had roughed up youths for dancing in the aisles at a recent concert by Jan and Dean, one of the first foreign pop groups to perform in China.
Chinese authorities today should keep in mind how things that happened in 1987 and 1988 worked to radicalize and alienate China’s university students. Shanghai’s students left the streets readily in 1986, once officials signaled that their patience was wearing thin and expressed concern that the demonstrations could end up harming the very reform process that the protesters wanted to speed up.
The youths felt pretty good, initially, about how things had gone. They had not accomplished anything specific but had been allowed to express their opinions without major reprisals.
But the situation soon deteriorated. The regime launched a campaign against “bourgeois liberalization,” viewed by the students as a step backward in terms of personal freedom. And Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang was demoted for having treated the protests too lightly–something that transformed him into a hero in the students’ eyes.
Even by 1989, many students viewed the Party as something that needed to be transformed, not toppled. But their regard for it had been damaged. This made it easy for protests to escalate quickly, once the unexpected death of Hu Yaobang brought them back out onto the streets.
Things are different now. Middle-class protesters in Xiamen and Shanghai have been more insistently focused on local issues with a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) dimension, such as the damaging effects that development can have to air quality and the danger of noise pollution, than were the students of two decades ago.
Still, China’s rulers should remember how easily authoritarian regimes can lose the good will of even those who like some things that the government is doing. This happened when Deng Xiaoping and company alienated a generation of students in the 1980s, and four decades before, when the Nationalist Party lost the respect of many members of that era’s urban middle class with brutal crackdowns, failing to curb official corruption and caring for little other than maintaining their control of the reins of government.
The history of Shanghai protest is filled with reminders of how dangerous it can be for a regime to appear unwilling to listen. While there may be risks to an authoritarian regime in allowing protests to continue unchecked, it may end up more damaged by leaping too quickly to treating any form of criticism as an unacceptable affront to authority.
In the lead-up to the Olympics, commentators in the West and in China have tended to focus on big issues. Some foreign critics have called for a boycott of the Games because of Beijing’s links to horrific actions taking place in Darfur and Burma. And Chinese Communist Party spokesmen assert that the Olympics will be a proud moment for all citizens of the PRC, since they will demonstrate that China is a major player on the global stage.
Thinking in international terms is certainly appropriate right now, given China’s large global footprint. Still, it is important not to lose sight of the importance of local issues. While some outsiders anticipate that 2008 will be a year when protests with an international dimension break out in China, it may be that the biggest challenge the government faces this year will turn out to be the one posed by a rapidly growing, highly articulate new social group with decidedly local concerns.