I just returned to Shanghai after two weeks in Cambodia. While I was away, middle-class Shanghainese took to the streets to protest the extension of Shanghai’s 400-km/hour magnetic levitation train -- the city’s largest demonstrations since the 2005 anti-Japanese protests (see links here). This time, they're on Youtube.
Shanghai’s current stretch of maglev is a big showcase project for the local government – when it was unveiled in 2004, it was the first commercial maglev in the world – but its importance is diminished by the fact that it only shuttles passengers from the airport to a distant subway line. Officials want to change that. And why not? Urban planning is often so simple. Neighborhoods come down, satellite cities go up. But this time residents living in the shadow of the line don’t want the noise diminishing the value of their prime real estate. Jeffrey Wasserstrom has an article on the phenomenon in the Nation.
Wasserstrom, a historian at University of California-Irvine, compares the recent protests with Shanghai demonstrations over the past century (this city has long been an incubator for social movements). He points out that the maglev protesters are well-heeled residents acting out of self-interest. As incomes rise, NIMBYism has come to China. Another difference: new technologies – specifically SMS and Youtube -- are accompanying this evolution in focus. Bulletins went out by SMS. Supporters uploaded links to Twitter. Here’s Wasserstrom:
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….
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.
It would be interesting to explore to what degree this localized focus can be connected to new technologies. Do Web 2.0 applications enable or facilitate NIMBYism?
In any case, the difference such methods of distribution makes can be seen in the comments that appeared on Youtube, like this one from Liyonghua0929: “Thank you Youtube! For giving us this space and allowing us to see the people’s reactions. Domestic websites are deleting our posts on the maglev faster than we can write them, and for such a large incident as this, the media is largely silent!”
From what the protestors seem to be saying, this protest may be more than mere NIMBYism... or from another perspective, may be valid NIMBYism. The planned building project would put the train system within 20m of peoples homes, and these people will be exposed higher than normal levels of radiation. In Germany, it is recommended that the MagLev is 500 metres away from peoples homes.