Shanghai Rail-Line Plan Fuels Middle-Class Protest

By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: January 27, 2008
Copyright The New York Times
SHANGHAI — Yang Yang, a 29-year-old saleswoman, had never imagined herself in the role of advocate.
The new maglev line is planned on the right side of the Ding Pu River, prompting protest from residents on both shores.
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.
Word of the antitrain 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.
The ordinary citizens like Ms. Yang who marched on People’s Square are wary of calling their event and the antitrain movement here a protest. Indeed, most even shy from the word “march,” preferring to speak instead of a “collective walk” to the square. But the coalescing of homeowners here around issues like property values, environmental safety, urban planning and how their tax money is spent is being seen as the strongest sign yet of rising resentment among China’s fast-growing middle class over a lack of say in government decision making.
“The more I learned about it, the more I understood how big a waste it would be,” 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.
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1 thought on “Shanghai Rail-Line Plan Fuels Middle-Class Protest”

  1. Howard
    The story you describe above could have been written here in Vancouver BC. Yang Yang and I have much in common with our reluctant protest of a government driven mega-project threatening our neighbourhood and livelihoods.
    Our battle is with the several BILLION dollar RAV/Canada Line project, a 19km long cut-and-cover-up (60 foot deep trench) that runs from the airport to downtown through a crowded retail and residential corridor. Cambie Street is now lined with vacant stores and scores of bankrupt businesses.
    It was sold to the public and stakeholders as a bored underground tunnel that would have left the street surface relatively undisturbed.
    I could insert my name in this piece, and RAVline for maglev, and this would be my story as well.
    I am one of the small businesses along the line and I’ve had to re-mortgage my home twice now to sustain my business after signing a long lease based on the false information it would be a minimally disruptive bored tunnel.
    The secrecy surrounding the bidding process, the double-cross of the small business community and residents, the lack of any kind of financial assistance factored into the plan – we could be in China! Our Olympic Committee even had a Countdown Clock designed based on the one in that bastion of democracy, Tiananmen Square. It’s unbelievable.
    Many of the merchants are immigrants from China and are afraid to speak out about this injustice. I am doing all I can to see jusice and compensation. We have had our concerns ignored by Premier Gordon Campbell and the Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon. Out of desperation I have launched a legal fight against all parties in this disaster in the making – every level of government and several huge corporations. This is not what should happen in a democracy. My case goes forward in Novemeber.
    (I sent you a letter from the NY Times site as well) We call this the Democratic Dictatorship of BC, with all the heavy development leading up to our hosting of the 2010 Olympics.
    I will try to follow this issue in Shanghai and hope they are successful in their fight.
    There is much more to this story on Cambie. It is shameful. There are many stories online at canada.com

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