China city gets the (text) message

Times Staff Writer

In the cat-and-mouse game that characterizes political protest in China, the mice won a round this week. They did it by finding a new way to use a familiar technology.

Opponents of a chemical plant being built in the coastal city of Xiamen used cellphone text messaging to distribute widely their warning of dire consequences if the factory opened.

“Once this extremely poisonous chemical is produced, it means an atomic bomb will have been placed in Xiamen,” the text message said in Chinese. “The people of Xiamen will have to live with leukemia and deformed babies. We want our lives and health!”

Spreading like a virus, the message was repeated more than 1 million times, environmentalists said, until it had reached practically everyone in Xiamen, a city of 1.5 million people in southeastern China known for its clean air and scenic views. It also spread beyond cellphones, splashed on walls in the form of graffiti and posted on blogs and other websites throughout China.

On Wednesday, in a move that caught almost everyone by surprise, municipal authorities announced that they were suspending construction of the plant.


It remains unclear whether China’s growing environmental movement will ultimately win the fight to stop the toxic chemical p-Xylene from being produced in Xiamen. Local authorities initially insisted that the halt in construction was merely temporary. Then, on Thursday, Vice Mayor Ding Guoyan was quoted in the official China Daily newspaper as saying, “The city government has listened to the opinions expressed and has decided, after careful consideration, that the project must be re-evaluated.”

P-Xylene is a petrochemical used in making films and fabrics. It is considered highly toxic, and has been linked to birth defects in animals. The $1.4-billion factory was being built by Tenglong Aromatic PX Co. 16 miles from the city center, next to a neighborhood of 100,000 people, according to the official New China News Agency.

No one has specifically said that plans for the factory have been scrapped. Local authorities did not immediately respond to questions faxed to them by The Times.

Whatever ultimately happens, the cellphone campaign clearly had an impact, and participants and outside observers hailed it as a powerful form of protest -- the latest in a series of innovations, from facsimile to e-mail to blog to text message, that dissenters have used to try to stay ahead of the government.

Student protesters who filled Tiananmen Square in 1989 used fax machines to disseminate news about their struggle, leading to a crackdown on the use of faxes. Similarly, the advent of the Internet and e-mail brought a new organizing tool, one still in use despite a massive, and largely successful, government effort to control it.

Information about the Xiamen plant on numerous websites vanished suddenly Wednesday as authorities sought to control the outpouring of dissent.

But cellphones present a new challenge to the government, because all but the poorest people in China own one and text messaging is ubiquitous -- used far more often, and by a wider span of ages, than in the U.S., where it tends to be a tool of the young.

Still, the Chinese government apparently has the means to crack down: In 2004, it provoked an outcry among some Western free speech advocates by purchasing a surveillance system for cellphone messages that allowed it to filter objectionable messages and pinpoint their senders. And in 2005, Chinese authorities temporarily banned the use of text messaging after it was used to organize violent anti-Japanese protests.

Still, Xiao Qiang, who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests and is now director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley, said the Xiamen protest was unusual and significant. “I think the technology played a big role in this particular case,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday. “It’s a very impressive one.”


Willingness to speak out

But Xiao said what was most impressive about what happened in Xiamen was not the technology but the willingness of people to speak out against what they perceive as a threat to their wellbeing.

“It’s a combination of the technology being available and the motivation to use it,” he said. “And I think you can say that in today’s China, the ordinary citizens are more and more willing to stand up for their own rights or interests.”

The government says the number of protests in the country has been declining in the last few years.

The Ministry of Public Security reported this year that there had been 17,900 “mass incidents” during the first nine months of 2006 -- a drop, it said, of 22.1%. Nearly two weeks ago, villagers protesting China’s one-child policy rioted in the southern province of Guangxi, clashing with police, burning buildings and overturning cars.

It is unclear who began the text message campaign in Xiamen. But well before it began, a prominent Chinese blogger, Lian Yue, had begun writing about the plant and organizing resistance to it.

According to the website China Digital Times, which is run by Xiao’s project at Berkeley, Lian posted a series of articles beginning in late March calling on the people of Xiamen to speak out against the plant.

“Don’t be afraid,” he urged readers. “If you are afraid, please just talk to your friends, family and colleagues about the event. They might still be in the dark.”

He told them that the plant would hurt property values and the tourism economy in Xiamen, and that “Xiamen people will also be viewed as weak and stupid” if they don’t stand up against it.

In an interview Thursday, Lian said he was “prudently optimistic” about the success of the environmental campaign.


‘Reached a critical point’

“It proves that Xiamen citizens have a stronger sense of environmental protection,” he said. “Their endurance reached a critical point. They couldn’t allow the city to be turned into a heavy industrial one. Their perception of the city is of sea, beach, sunshine and clean air.”

He insisted that he didn’t know who first began sending the SMS, or short message service, warnings. “But it proves that it is almost impossible to block information now,” he said.

“SMS is a widely used communication method, more than the Internet. Only a certain amount of people use the Internet, but almost everyone has a cellphone.”

Xu Lili, a 24-year-old tour guide in Xiamen, said the government’s decision surprised and impressed her.

By taking dissenting views seriously, she said, leaders had sent a message that “the government respects people, respects science and stresses environmental protection.”

“Such things,” she added, “rarely happen in Xiamen.”


Gu Bo in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.