By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: January 27, 2008
Copyright The New York Times
SHANGHAI â€šÃ„Ã® 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 developmentâ€šÃ„Ã´s electronic bulletin board of the cityâ€šÃ„Ã´s plans to extend Shanghaiâ€šÃ„Ã´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 Shanghaiâ€šÃ„Ã´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 Peopleâ€šÃ„Ã´s Square are wary of calling their event and the antitrain movement here a protest. Indeed, most even shy from the word â€šÃ„Ãºmarch,â€šÃ„Ã¹ preferring to speak instead of a â€šÃ„Ãºcollective walkâ€šÃ„Ã¹ 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 Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s fast-growing middle class over a lack of say in government decision making.
â€šÃ„ÃºThe more I learned about it, the more I understood how big a waste it would be,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Ms. Yang said. â€šÃ„ÃºThe 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.â€šÃ„Ã¹
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 trainâ€šÃ„Ã´s powerful electromagnets, but grievances have multiplied.
Beyond the voicing of deep-seated skepticism about the governmentâ€šÃ„Ã´s priorities and about what many feel is the waste of taxpayersâ€šÃ„Ã´ money, what most distinguishes this wave of demonstrations from other recent protests is a new insistence that the government seek the publicâ€šÃ„Ã´s consent in decisions that directly affect their lives.
â€šÃ„ÃºYou could say this is a sign of a rising middle class and the awakening of a sense of real citizenship,â€šÃ„Ã¹ 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 Jintaoâ€šÃ„Ã´s policy of â€šÃ„Ãºharmonious development,â€šÃ„Ã¹ 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 governmentâ€šÃ„Ã´s initiatives to be far too timid.
â€šÃ„ÃºWhy are they so late to reveal their plans and why so secretly?â€šÃ„Ã¹ said Zhang Junying, 71, who lives along the projected train route.
He was referring to the governmentâ€šÃ„Ã´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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By HOWARD W. FRENCH