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Text messages giving voice to Chinese

A text message campaign against a chemical factory in China was a dramatic illustration of the potential of technology -- particularly cellphones and the Internet -- to challenge the rigorous censorship and political controls through which the party maintains its monopoly on power over China's 1.4 billion people.
Mobile phones
A Chinese woman talks on her mobile phone while another man sends a text message on his in Beijing. China Mobile, the world's largest mobile phone operator, has 301.2 million subscribers, exceeding the population of the United States.Diego Azubel / EPA
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

By the hundreds of thousands, the urgent text messages ricocheted around cellphones in Xiamen, warning of a catastrophe that would spoil the city's beautiful seaside environment and foul its sweet-smelling tropical breezes.

By promoting the construction of a giant chemical factory among the suburban palm trees, the local government was "setting off an atomic bomb in all of Xiamen," the massive message sprays charged, predicting that the plant would cause "leukemia and deformed babies" among the 2 million-plus residents of this city on China's southern rim, just opposite Taiwan.

The environmental activists behind the messages might have exaggerated the danger with their florid language, experts said. But their passionate opposition to the chemical plant generated an explosion of public anger that forced a halt in construction, pending further environmental impact studies by authorities in Beijing, and produced large demonstrations June 1 and 2, drawing national publicity.

Technology challenges
The delay marked a rare instance of public opinion in China rising from the streets and compelling a change of policy by Communist Party bureaucrats. It was a dramatic illustration of the potential of technology -- particularly cellphones and the Internet -- to challenge the rigorous censorship and political controls through which the party maintains its monopoly on power over China's 1.4 billion people.

"I think this is a great precedent for China," said Zhong Xiaoyong, a Xiamen resident who, in his persona as the blogger Lian Yue, wrote extensively on efforts to stop construction of the factory.

Despite efforts by local Public Security Bureau technicians to block the cellphone campaign, thousands of people heeded the alarm during the last days of May. Despite warnings from city hall and a large turnout of uniformed and plainclothes police, they marched in hot, muggy weather through the streets of Xiamen to protest the chemical factory being built on Haicang, an industrial and residential island across a narrow strait from downtown Xiamen.

The demonstrations were largely peaceful, except for pushing against policemen lined up to stop the march, witnesses said. About 8,000 to 10,000 people participated the first day and half that many the second day. But something unprecedented occurred that gave the demonstrators a power even they had not envisioned: Citizen journalists carrying cellphones sent text messages about the action to bloggers in Guangzhou and other cities, who then posted real-time reports for the entire country to see.

'Police wall has broken down'
"The second police defense line has been dispersed," Wen Yunchao, one such witness, typed to a friend in Guangzhou. "There is pushing and shoving. The police wall has broken down."

China's blogosphere tuned in in great numbers, viewing written accounts and cellphone photographs. Sites carrying the live reports recorded thousands of hits. Some sites were knocked out by security monitors. But by then their reports had bounced to other sites around the country, keeping one step ahead of the censors. Many of those tuned in were traditional newspaper and magazine reporters whose editors were afraid to cover the protests because of warnings from the Xiamen party Propaganda Department.

"The Chinese government controls the traditional press, so the news circulated on the Internet and cellphones," Wen, also a blogger, said later. "This showed that the Chinese people can send out their own news, and the authorities have no way to stop it entirely. This had so much impact. I think virtually every media worker in China was looking at it and keeping up with it."

Wen said he and his friends have since concluded that if protesters had been armed with cellphones and computers in 1989, there would have been a different outcome to the notorious Tiananmen Square protest, which ended with intervention by the People's Liberation Army and the killings of hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the streets of Beijing.

Scientist snubbed, blogger steps in
The campaign against the Tenglong Aromatic PX (Xiamen) Co. Ltd. factory had started months earlier. Zhao Yufen, a U.S.-trained chemistry professor at Xiamen University and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, had organized a petition in which she and 100 other signatories argued against the 300-acre, $1.4 billion factory complex.

The factory, being built by Taiwanese businessman Chen Yu-hao, was to make paraxylene, which is used in plastics, polyester and other synthetic products. Paraxylene can cause eye, ear, nose and throat irritations and, with prolonged exposure, damage to the nervous system. But Zhao's real objection was the danger of an accident. Such an eventuality was not without precedent. A chemical factory exploded in northern China in 2005, sending toxic chemicals into the Songhua River and fouling the water supply in the major city of Harbin.

Zhao also pressed her case with local officials and, in Beijing, with the National Development and Reform Commission. But with economic development as the party watchword, they were not moved. The government, including the State Environmental Protection Administration, had already approved the project, she was told, so there was nothing more to discuss.

He Lifeng, the Xiamen Communist Party secretary, was pushing hard to get the factory built. It would almost double the city's gross domestic product to $26 billion, officials here argued, making the deal a potential milestone on He's career path. Moreover, Chen, the Taiwanese owner, was known as an opponent of Taiwanese independence, thus a businessman to be cultivated.

A letter from He cited in the Oriental Weekly magazine, affiliated with the official New China News Agency, urged people in the Xiamen government to disregard the objections. As a result, the Xiamen party Propaganda Bureau made sure the reservations of Zhao and others were not discussed in public. Instead, local newspapers and television news programs ran story after story on the economic benefits that would come to Xiamen because of the new factory.

Blog spreads news
"They only had positive news about it," recalled Zhong, the blogger known as Lian Yue. "They just said it was a great project. . . . But little by little, the news broke through the blackout."

One reason was Zhong, who used his blog to raise Zhao's questions and spread them among the Xiamen public. Zhong, 37, was making his living mainly by freelancing commentary to newspapers and magazines, and his wife, a lawyer, had steady work in the city. As a result, he was less subject to pressure from the Propaganda Department than his colleagues at Xiamen's newspapers and television stations, who risked losing their salaries, health insurance, housing subsidies and other benefits if they defied orders from the censors.

"They were afraid," he said. "As for me, I don't rely on any work unit, so I had less to worry about. If I had been working in a regular job, I couldn't have done it."

Beijing takes notice
As Zhong and other Internet commentators spread the alert, reporters from national magazines started to show up in Xiamen to interview Zhao and report on the hazards. Inspired by the Propaganda Department, local newspapers ran stories about how the outsiders were practicing "yellow journalism" and harming Xiamen's reputation. Several of the national reporters said their editors were contacted by Xiamen's Propaganda Department and warned against running the story.

"They thought they could control the national media the same way they controlled the media in Xiamen," one of them recalled, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear the Xiamen censors could still harm him or his editors.

The cellphone campaign, meanwhile, picked up momentum. Residents of Xiamen, whose gentle hills overlook a sun-splashed bay dotted with islands leading into the Taiwan Strait, have long been proud of their city's natural beauty; they were quick to mobilize against what they were being told was a threat to the environment.

Authorities in Beijing and Fuzhou, the Fujian provincial capital, also started to take notice. President Hu Jintao was about to travel to Germany for a meeting with leaders of the Group of Eight industrialized countries, where China's reputation as a polluter would be a topic of discussion, and this was no time for an embarrassing environmental dispute.

Momentum too strong to stop
As a result, He and his party committee were summoned to Fuzhou on May 29 to review environmental studies carried out when the factory was approved in 2005. Since then, city officials acknowledged, residential neighborhoods had been allowed to rise near the factory site. A delay was agreed; He visited the construction site May 30 and said nothing would be harmed by taking a second look.

But by then the protest momentum had grown too strong to stop. Xiamen residents no longer trusted the government on the factory issue, participants said, and they feared the new study would only confirm earlier authorizations. The protest marches went off as scheduled, ignoring announcements by the Xiamen city government -- including one made while the demonstrators were in the street -- that the factory project was on hold.

"Protect our children's health," the banners read.

Xiamen authorities accused the marchers of violating the law. Well-intentioned citizens were being manipulated by troublemakers, the Public Security Bureau warned. Du Mingcong, vice director of the Xiamen People's Congress standing committee, expressed concern that demonstrating in such hot weather could "damage the participants' mental and physical health."

But such concern found no echo in Beijing. Pan Yue, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said Xiamen should think again about the chemical plant. People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, ran a front-page editorial condemning local officials who had disregarded President Hu's admonitions to preserve the environment.

The message was received loud and clear here in Xiamen. Mayor Liu Cigui, speaking to reporters in Hong Kong, agreed that the project might have to be shelved. His spokesman, Shen Canhuang, said the decision had been deferred to the central government.

Professor Zhao, meanwhile, warned that the anti-pollution bureaucrats might consider only whether the plant endangers people living in the nearby housing developments. Although she declined a formal interview, saying it would have to be approved by the Propaganda Department, Zhao said in a telephone conversation that the real problem remains whether the plant should be built near Xiamen at all.

"This is for the environmental safety of Xiamen," she said. "Xiamen is special."