by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Weibo

RECENT PROTESTS in China, taking place in the cities of Beijing and Linfen, the latter of which is a city in Shanxi province, have gone largely unreported on in international media. Nevertheless, both protests are significant, seeing as the protest in Beijing was a rare show of resistance by migrant workers which could encourage further protest and the demonstration in Linfen involved, according to some reports, more credibly anywhere from over 1,000 people to 10,000 individuals, as well as higher, probably exaggerated counts. 

Perhaps this lack of reporting on demonstrations in international media is not surprising. In reporting on events in non-western contexts, international media is generally poor at reporting on events which take place outside of large, central metropolises. This is particularly a challenge in China, which deliberately attempts to confine journalists to such large, central metropolises while still placing other restrictions on their activities, in order to prevent reporting on events which take place elsewhere. Yet one also suspects the sheer size of some cities in China proves another obstacle, with large demonstrations numbering up to 50,000 individuals in suburbs of Shanghai in 2015 as little reported on as if they took place in a far-flung province in which there are few international reporters, if any. It is also not always easy to confirm the size of large-scale protest when crowd estimates can sometimes vary greatly.

However, it still is surprising that there has been fairly little coverage of demonstrations in Beijing by international media, seeing as the mass eviction of thousands of migrant workers in the dead of winter using the pretext of a fire which killed nineteen and the outrage that this provoked within China was, in fact, reported on widely by international media. Outrage was heightened by the heavy-handed response taken by the Chinese government, in attempting to censor criticisms of the actions by Beijing authorities, meant to put into effect population restrictions aimed at preventing overpopulation by using the fire as pretext to drive out poor migrant workers from outside Beijing, and that such migrants were dubbed undesirable “low end populations” in official parlance. There have also been reports of masked thugs breaking windows and using physical violence to intimidate migrant workers.

Perhaps following the pattern set in which protests in Shanghai suburbs caused little attention, demonstrations by migrant workers in Beijing have primarily taken place outside of the Beijing city center and in suburbs of Beijing such as the northeastern village of Feijia and southeastern district of Daxing. Demonstrations have not been very largely, gathering for a few hours and number several hundreds of people, but given how widespread anger over the forced eviction of migrant workers has been, if news about these protest spread, one imagines that they could spark further demonstrations. Yet, to that extent, the Chinese government has attempted to crack down on those have attempted to spread word of these demonstrations, notably arresting Hua Yong, an artist who livestreamed some of the protests, from his apartment in Tianjin as Hua livestreamed police breaking down the door of his apartment on Twitter in a video seen by over 100,000.

Meanwhile, though not directly related, demonstrations in Linfen which involved reportedly over a thousand demonstrators and up to ten thousand demonstrators, was regarding the state-owned Linfen Thermal Power Company illegal charging households for installing devices to receive natural gas in the middle of winter, a means of attempting to increase the fees that consumers need to pay for gas. Additional charges would be to the tune of 5,000 yuan, or USD $755, which is beyond what many would be able to afford.

Linfen is a city that has long been troubled by its energy industry. With a population of 3.5 million, Linfen was named the city with the worst air quality in the world in 2006, and despite efforts to clean up the city in the decade since, particularly following the start of China’s “War on Pollution,” the city remains heavily polluted. As such, it may not be too surprising that there is anger against the Linfen Thermal Power Company regarding a number of issues.

Video of demonstrations in Linfen. Film credit: 悟空图文/Twitter

However, past protests were directly sparked by the arrest of Chang Jiaxuan, an activist in the local area who has been active in organizing regarding the issue, after posting a video on his Twitter account stating Linfen Thermal Power Company’s upcoming plans to add these new charges. Following this, Chang was detained by authorities, although authorities reportedly made an attempt to bribe Chang by offering to provide Chang and his family with heating.

What is shared between the Linfen protests and the Beijing evictions, then, has been the fact that they were sparked by a state acting on behalf of capitalist interests, in either seeking to evict working class migrant workers living in Beijing as part of population stabilization efforts aimed at maintaining the quality of life for middle class residents, or attempting to extract greater profit from residents of Linfen. But such should not be surprising about the contemporary realities of life in China, a country which has long since become dominated by its unrestrained free market, and whose state which acts in defense of capitalist interests above all else. Yet international silence on the issue is disappointing nonetheless.

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