Liaoyang-Dalian: The Transformation of China’s Rust Belt Unrest

The 14 August 2011 protests in Dalian, forcing the closing of a major chemical plant there, have inspired a fair amount of news in the Anglophone and Sinophone press.

Now the Guardian’s essential environmental correspondent, Jonathan Watts, takes the analysis to a new level, describing the role of social class in forcing the environmental issue to the fore — or, in other words, the power of the white collar Dalianites to force change while poor and rural Chinese languish in pollution pools.

One angle which Watts does not explore, and which I have yet to see parsed, is the extent to which social unrest or grass-roots protest activity has transformed in Liaoning province over the past decade.  An excellent reference paper can be found in this working paper on the Liaoyang protests over the Fero-Alloy Plant in 2002.

Affluence and change in Liaoning province certainly struck me in Shenyang earlier this month, where the compression between new and old, rich and poor, is striking in ways that “second-tier” cities like Chengdu, dating to a somewhat earlier round of development, only approximate in patches.

I spent exactly a week this summer living in the Dalian Special Economic Zone, where the plant in question is located, and talking to the very white collar workers whose offices are nearby the plant.  This is a place quite apart from Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, where wealth is regarded as a kind of surprise, slow in coming, dusty, where environmental devastation is taken as a fact of life.  (Where, by the way, is the reporting on the changes in the Tiexi district?  Why is it that filmmakers seem to have taken the lead as the true modern anthropologists?)  In Dalian as in Shanghai, there is a strong sense of entitlement in having “made it”, having clawed to the top of a difficult and teeming hierarchy of tests and knowledge and workplace challenges that bring one, finally, to the city of apples, foreign cheeses, direct flights to everywhere and temperate summers.  The extent to which a chemical plant threatens this (now lost?) paradise is a particularly fascinating question that Watts grasps at, but it is important to place Dalian in its regional context (as well as to compare it to Yunnan, since everywhere on earth really ought to be compared to Yunnan at some point).  Once we place Dalian in its Liaoning context — even though so many of its mobile workers, particularly in the Special Economic Zone, hail from other regions of China — we can gain some small insight into the outlook for further “environmental movements,” such as they are and might become, in the PRC.

Having been blasted out of the barrel of the San Francisco Bay Area this morning, little time remains for this author to parse the transformation much further or delve into the rusty guts of beloved Liaoyang, but it (the metamorphosis, that is) is worthy of more type, more ink, more thought, more words, and more speech, if not beating of drums and flinging of digital images.

A Dalian artist brings the hard truth, December 2010, image via 南方周末; click image for link to the story "The End of 'Great Dalian'," an August 2011 which I began to tear apart in the back of a fossil-burning taxi blazing 167 yuan to Pudong Airport in Shanghai from the Municipal Library wherein Guomindang periodicals were parsed and the fate of the nation only vaguely sensed

Yuanhai Fangwei [远海防卫]: Observing China’s Navy

Back in the American defense belt of Orange County, I’m reading Kissinger and reflecting on the extensive annual report to Congress from the Pentagon regarding Chinese military capabilities.  The full text of the report is here.

One minor advantage of the financial focus of VP Biden’s public remarks in China from 17-21 August was that the normal drum-beating on the security front relented, but only slightly so; the temporary disengagement from security and military competition seems just that.

Of course, these two threads — the military and the economic — were neatly tied together in a statement by the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican John “Buck” McLeod:

China clearly believes that it can capitalize on the global financial crisis, using the United States’ economic uncertainty as a window of opportunity to strengthen China’s economic, diplomatic, and security interests. Therefore, security in the Pacific could be further jeopardized if our regional allies also come to believe that the United States will sacrifice the presence and capability of the U.S. military in an attempt to control spending.  This is an unacceptable outcome…

For some reason this makes me think we might be better off with an annual White Paper by a few dozen academics analyzing the whole notion in the prior year of the “China Threat.”  Goodness knows there is enough material to mine alone from such 4-times-a-week publications as 国防时报 (China Defense News).  In the meantime there are always the incongrous statements of a “what? you’re nervous about poor old us?” take on the role of combat vessels in China’s peaceful rise by or the old standby 环球时报 (Huanqiu Shibao/Global Times).

A smarter approach might be to note that in Dalian, the northeastern port city from which the carrier launched and where I spent a little under two weeks this summer, “public opinion” was far, far more enraged over a chemical spill than they were over the heralded release of the aircraft carrier.  (Do not miss these stunning photos of the Dalian protests — which I missed by a single day — from the China Media Project.)  Moreover, the Wenzhou train crash in late July, which was caught in and ultimately overcame the maelstrom of pro-aircraft carrier domestic propaganda, further indicates the domestic limits for Chinese leaders of hyping military trophies over basic necessities like product safety and corporate/environmental regulations.

Back in Washington, American observers of Chinese naval capabilities are further alarmed by Japan’s aftershocks and slumps of various kinds.  As a partner of Armitage International testified before a House Commitee in May 2011 (full text here of the hearing on “the Future of Japan“):

Again, our aspirations are for a strong Japan. We can’t have and should not be complacent about Japan looking inward. But I would also add there are a few voices who have talked about a reorienta- tion opportunity for Japan, some high-profile op-eds maybe, about looking at reorienting away from the alliance and maybe toward China.

I just want to say that while China will surely be part of the re- covery and will surely be part of Japan’s trajectory out of this cri- sis, this would not be a very wise move, in my opinion. China is not the same kind of partner that the United States will be now and looking forward; at best, an unreliable partner. We only need to look at the events of 2010 to see China’s more assertive sov- ereignty claims; vis-a`-vis Japan, their cutting off of rare earth ma- terials when Japan was in need; and in general, an attitude of sup- porting the adversaries of Japan, like North Korea. So I hope it is not an inward turn, but I also hope it is not a reorientation away from the alliance. I very much believe in the future of this alliance.

In the House Commmittee on Foreign Relations, the outlook for slightly less harsh rhetoric towards China is also not positive.  One need only recall Chair Ros-Lehtinen’s remarks of July 1, 2011, commemorating the 90th anniversary of the CCP.   Comments like hers that strip China entirely of its Dengist direction, pointing glaringly at Maoist continuities, are particularly rough.

We’re in for an interesting fall in any event.