Plan to extend Shanghai rail line stirs middle class to protest

April, 2008

Value Based Learning

The following excerpt from a New York Times article (1/27/08) reports on the response of Shanghai’s middle class citizens to the government’s plans to extend a rail line through their neighborhood.

Scroll down to the end of the article for questions about the conflict based on the Earth Charter’s ethical principles. Use them to analyze the views of the protesters and the government’s plan.

Adapted from ‘Plan to Extend Shanghai Rail Line Stirs Middle Class to Protest’ by Howard W. French, New York Times 1/27/08

SHANGHAI — Yang Yang, a 29-year-old saleswoman, had never imagined herself in the role of advocate. But when she learned from her housing development’s electronic bulletin board of the city’s plans to extend Shanghai’s futuristic magnetic levitation*, or maglev, train line within 30 yards of her house, she was angered about the effect on property values and began networking with other middle-class opponents both in her neighborhood and all along the planned train route. The new maglev line is planned on the right side of the Ding Pu River, prompting protest from residents on both shores.

Word of the anti-train sentiment quickly gathered momentum, and on Jan. 12, a sunny Saturday afternoon, Ms. Yang found herself in Shanghai’s most important public square with a few thousand other similarly disgruntled residents, many of them carrying signs and chanting slogans denouncing the train project, in one of the largest demonstrations this city has seen in recent years.

This coalescing of homeowners here around issues like property values, environmental safety, urban planning and how tax money is spent is seen as the strongest sign yet of rising resentment among China’s fast-growing middle class over a lack of say in decision making. Ms. Yang said: “The money is from us, the taxpayers. Shanghai may be relatively rich, and it enjoys fast growth, but this is no justification for them spending the money collected from us on a pure prestige project.”

Many of the early opponents of the route extension seized upon objections cited in a protest last year that forced a retracing of the line in which people voiced fears about radiation from the train’s powerful electromagnets, but grievances have multiplied. Beyond the voicing of deep-seated skepticism about the government’s priorities and about what many feel is the waste of taxpayers’ money, what most distinguishes this wave of demonstrations from other recent protests is a new insistence that the government seek the public’s consent in decisions that directly affect their lives. “You could say this is a sign of a rising middle class and the awakening of a sense of real citizenship,” said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at Beijing Institute of Technology.

With its tradition of top-down decision making, secretive deliberations and little tolerance for dissent, the Chinese government has almost no practice of real popular consultation. Recently, though, under President Hu Jintao’s policy of “harmonious development,” the state has made tentative efforts to solicit public opinion, but opponents of the maglev train and other critics say the Shanghai crisis has shown the government’s initiatives to be far too timid. “Why are they so late to reveal their plans and why so secretly?” said Zhang Junying, 71, who lives along the projected train route.

He was referring to the government’s mention of the new route on an obscure environmental Web site in January, with an invitation for responses by letter or e-mail within two weeks. To many, the announcement seemed intended to attract as little attention as possible. That discreet approach quickly backfired as word spread among residents that the government had only given them a two week window to stop the project. City offices were besieged by phone calls as well as by letter and e-mail writers. When the government did not respond, a protest movement was born……

(For Shanghai’s leaders) outbreak of unrest in a city that functions as China’s international showcase would be unwelcome. Moreover, if a citizens’ movement here did manage to force the government to reverse its plans, disgruntled citizens in cities all over China could take their cue from Shanghai. Shanghai’s leaders have suggested that the city would postpone any decisions on the train until tempers had cooled. But behind the scenes the government is working hard to break the back of the movement, sending scores of police officers to neighborhoods where meetings have been held, briefly arresting people who appear at gatherings to oppose the maglev, forcing them to erase digital photos they have taken of protests and to sign confessions. Demonstrators say they have been warned that if arrested a second time, they will be detained for 15 days. Others have been told by their employers that they will be fired if they take part in protests. Media coverage of the controversy has been banned.

The protesters have responded by organizing themselves as a loose movement that is not easily suppressed. They use electronic bulletin boards and You-Tube to post news of protests and keep the protests publicly leader less to avoid arrests. Zhao Fang, 35, a housewife, suggests that authorities underestimated the opposition to the project.

* Magnetic levitation is a technology which uses the power of heavy magnets to pull the train over a rail.

 A value-based ethical framework for evaluating social and ecological events, conditions and practices  Anita L. Wenden

Ecological sustainability
• How will Earth’s resources, her life-supporting systems be affected by the planned extension of Shanghai’s rail line?
• Have plans been made to prevent or remediate possible ill effects of extending it?

• Have the plans to extend the rail line led to conflict? If yes, between which groups? Why?
• Was the conflict ignored?
• If not, what means were taken by the government to resolve it? by the Shanghai’s middle class citizens? Was physical force or aggression used? psychological violence? Or nonviolent means? If so, what were they and who used these various forms of resolving conflict?
• Has the conflict been resolved? If not, why not?

Social Justice
• In choosing to extend the rail line through a middle class neighborhood, was the government’s power and wealth being used to benefit all the groups in the area? If not, what groups would suffer? Which of their human rights would be violated ? Which groups would benefit? How?

Intergenerational Equity
• How will urban projects such as the planned rail line extension affect the wellbeing of future generations? Consider their effects on (1) Earth’s life supporting systems and on (2) social stability and harmony.

Participatory Decision-making
• In dealing with this problem, have the concerns of individuals and groups who will be affected by the extended rail line been solicited? Have their suggestions been taken into account?
• Have citizens taken their own actions to deal with the problem?
Should the Shanghai government proceed with the project? Why? Why not? Share your opinion with a friend or with