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China: Shifang Government Goes From Angel to Satan in Crackdown?

The week-long not-in-my-backyard or NIMBY protests in Shifang [en, zh], a small city in southwestern China's Sichuan province were finally brought to an end by a brutal crackdown on July 2, 2012. Outraged by the vicious repression, a number of famous Chinese bloggers try to explain why the Shifang government behaved so irrationally in handling a protest that started peacefully.

Confrontation between police and Shifang citizens. Public domain photos via Offbeat China

Shifang government blames outside instigators 

Offbeat China explains the Shifang protest in this detailed account [en, zh]. Soon after the crackdown, the Shifang government issued an open letter [zh]. Below is part of an excerpt translated by Ministry of Tofu:

July 1 is the birthday of the Party. Some people with ulterior motives sinisterly and groundlessly publicized this project and instigated unwitting students to rally around the Shifang Municipal Party Committee, which drew large crowds…

Poverty gives rise to the desire for change. Lagging behind makes one vulnerable to attacks. Don’t have blind faith in the paper tiger. They are extremely cruel and merciless and will only deliver unrest, by introducing the anti-humanity Falun Gong (a spiritual movement labeled a cult and banned in China) to a third country and funding Dalai Lama’s splittism clique…

What the Chinese Communist Party aims for is an era of prosperity and jubilation that will be celebrated by the entire nation and benefit the entire humanity. The center of the world will slowly gravitate towards China. Shifang is a small city where people live in peace and happiness, where people have ample food and clothing and expect to prolong their life span. But its people cannot be taken advantage of by others to do things that will damage the basis of our happiness and our image.

Such conspiracy theories are not uncommon in China's politics, yet famous online critic @五岳散人 [zh] tries to read between the lines of the open letter:

@五岳散人: 四川什枋因为钼铜项目引发的大规模群体事件具有极度鲜明的特点,一边是动用军警暴力镇压,一边是承诺顺应民意停止建设,然后再次把事件定性为一小撮、境外势力等。如果您看不明白,我给您两个关键词:色厉内荏、心虚。掌控着暴力的人,对暴力本身已经没有把握了。

@五岳散人: The mass incidents in Sichuan Shifang in reaction to the construction of molybdenum and copper plant project has the following features: on the one hand, the government resorted to the military police to crackdown the protest. On the other hand, the government accepted the public demand to stop the construction. Then, it defined the incident as being incited by a handful of foreign anti-China forces. If you still do not understand, I give you some hints: Barking dogs seldom bite. The violence executor is no longer confident in the use of violence.

Shifang was a hard-hit area during the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake and was listed as a top priority for reconstruction. Upon reading the open letter, popular Chengdu blogger Li Chengpeng, who volunteered in the relief work during the Wenchuan Earthquake, accounted for the government's attitude with his blog post, Weird Mission-A Letter to the Officials in Shifang Government [zh]:

整个灾区的官员们莫名其妙拥有一种奇怪的使命,买豪车是为了重建,挪用赈灾款是为了重建,重度污染也是为了重建,贪污也是为了重建……因为一场灾难,你们获得太多的犯罪豁免权和不被批评权,更重要的是——你们被惯坏了,自我英雄催眠,强烈的悲剧崇高感,有时候连你们自己都产生幻觉,搞不清此时是在贪污还是在重建

The officials in Shifang government have taken up a strange mission since the Wenchuan Earthquake. Under the name of reconstruction, they have bought luxury cars, misappropriated disaster relief funds and polluted the city… They are immune from criticism and criminal charge because of  the disaster. They are spoiled and have started romanticizing themselves as heroes in a Greek tragedy. Sometimes, they act as if they are living in an imaginary world in which corruption and reconstruction cannot be distinguished.

A protester injured during the police crackdown in Shifang. Public domain photo via SF Choi in Facebook

Shifang netizen liuanbo88′s comment [zh] echoes Li's observation:

他们杀过一次人了。他们杀人用的不是刀,而是摒弃的身为父母官的责任感,是512地震时黄金抢救时间的不作为。他们还想杀一次人,这次用的是他们对金钱的贪婪,用的是想提升GDP和政绩的欲望。

They have killed once, though not with a knife, but with their negligence in giving up their responsibility as civil servants by missing the prime opportunity to save victims during the 5.12 Wenchuan Earthquake. [Now] they want to kill people again with their desire for big money, a rise in GDP and their administrative performance.

The Lucifer effect

After the brutal crackdown, Li rushed to Shifang and tried to find the truth. Later, he wrote a reflective piece about the Lucifer Effect experiment in Shifang [zh] (the original post was deleted and the link is a backup copy by China Digital Times). Li tries to answer a question in his post: why the angel has turned into Satan?:

什邡政府太强大了,很多人知道钼铜项目先后被新疆、云南、西藏拒绝,就连很多什邡当地官员也反对这个项目。可为了实现任期内最大一个政绩,书记强行上马。…为了普及这种正确性,什邡进入了一种近乎搞笑的癫狂状态。按照指令,什邡电视台为此专门制作了一个专题,什邡政府各部门负责人甚至妇联主任必须依次在节目里向市民宣讲钼铀项目的优越性,手机平台向所有市民发送动员短信,公务员们(虽然他们很多并不同意钼铜)也被要求走上街头宣传它的重要性、合理性。…经验告诉我们,这里最大的恐怖不是官员错了,这里最大的恐怖是官员正确,他们带着正确甚至崇高的想法,就可以跨越一切的顾忌和法律…他们先行把自己定位为好人,那些反对自己的当然就是别有用心,就该受到惩戒。这就是路西法效应…

The Shifang government is so strong. Many people know that the molybdenum and copper plant project had been rejected by the Yunnan and Tibet government. Many Shifang government officials also opposed the plan. However, the party secretary was eager for this achievement so he pushed it through…In order to promote the project, the town went crazy. Following the authority's orders, a Shifang TV station produced a special feature in which all government officials, including the head of All China Women's Federation, had to speak in favor of the project in front of the camera. All mobile platforms sent out [positive news] messages to their customers. Civil servants (many of whom opposed the project) had to distribute pamphlets explaining the significance of the project on the street…Historical experience teaches us that the most terrible thing in this world is not when the government officials are wrong. The most terrible thing is when they are right. With their noble mission, they could trepass all taboos and laws… They have positioned themselves as good people and those who are opposed to them are ill-hearted and should be punished.This is the Lucifer Effect…

A girl from Shifang kneeling in front of the police to seek compassion from authorities. Public domain photo via Offbeat China.

Prominent blogger Han Han's explanation of the Shifang government's insane reaction has shared similar insight with Li's Lucifer theory. Han Han's original post has been deleted, below is a quote from China Digital Times’ translation:

I also want to tell the Shifang government that your decision to disperse the crowd was too sudden and excessive. I can understand that as a local government, you have no experience dealing with this kind of mass incident. Once you see the government offices surrounded by people, and the sign that was over the door broken on the ground, of course you feel annoyed. You look down at the people and then up at the calendar, [and think] oh gosh, it’s the Organization’s birthday. The whole situation feels bad, and it’s happening on the wrong day, and something terrible will happen, and you might lose your position, and so you conclude that you must disperse the crowd before anything else. These people are not even celebrating the Birthday, so fine, you bust it up, they’re not giving you any face. I can imagine the order from the policy-makers: “Settle this as soon as possible.” Then the ones carrying out orders think, “As soon as possible… disperse… got it… dial 0101…” And so there’s no room left for the most basic exchange of words. Could it be that you’re treating the people’s anger at environmental destruction like an epidemic, to be stamped out in one day? No need for talk, just throw the tear gas? Having gone through Wenchuan, don’t you know that the more emotions build up, the bigger the explosion? When people release their anger, even if it’s over the top or started by someone from the outside, can’t you take it on good faith? You’d rather pepper spray them? So this is how the police connect with the people, by crying pepper spray tears with them?

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