Tea Leaf Nation

These Chinese People Want High-Speed Rail So Badly They Are Fighting Police to Get It

A reverse-NIMBY protest is sweeping a city in southern China.


On May 16, thousands of people carrying banners marched through the streets of Linshui, a county in the southwest Chinese province of Sichuan. Some shouted slogans while others hurled rocks at lines of police in riot gear, who pushed back against the crowds and beat some with batons. Photographs show several people with bloody head injuries being cared for by paramedics and onlookers. Linshui residents turned out in droves, burned vehicles, and braved riot police for more than eight hours — not to protest inequality, corruption, or environmental degradation, but to demand that a high-speed rail line be built through their county.

Though authorities attempted to control information surrounding the protest, its sheer scale made that impossible. What sparked the mass demonstration were conflicting local reports that seemed to indicate that the new line would bypass Linshui in favor of neighboring Guang’an, a regional hub and the birthplace of China’s late leader, Deng Xiaoping. The demonstration began after a petition circulated on May 16, and one eyewitness told the Wall Street Journal that tens of thousands of people had poured into the streets and many businesses closed. Chinese government and media outlets have not provided an estimate of the size of the demonstration, and local police detained Al Jazeera’s on-site reporting team for hours, preventing them from reporting. Photos circulating online show a wide boulevard packed with people, the crowded road stretching into the distance. On May 17, state news agency Xinhua reported the incident but appeared to downplay the scale of the turnout. Staying into the early morning on May 17, marchers carried signs that read, “Give us back our railroad” and “Build high-speed rail.” The incident quickly spread to the Internet with participants uploading photos and video online, only to be deleted by censors. Others posted their support on microblogging platform Weibo.

The Linshui protest is doubly unusual in China, not just because it happened at all – demonstrations are usually snuffed out before they reach such proportions – but because it was pro-development. In recent years, demonstrations that do manage to survive long enough to achieve their aims are often the so-called NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) protests against chemical factories or other polluters that pose a direct environmental hazard to local residents. Protests have been particularly effective in relocating or preventing the construction of plants which produce paraxylene, a harmful chemical; for example, popular pressure forced authorities to back down in Xiamen in 2007, Ningbo in 2012, and Maoming in 2014 — each is a coastal city with millions of residents.

It may be something about the benefits that rail, in particular, can bring. China is now home to the longest high-speed rail network in the world, an ambitious 9,900-mile decade-long project that’s drawn criticism both at home and abroad, especially in the wake of a deadly bullet train crash in July 2011 and an official cover-up that dealt a serious blow to popular confidence in the high-speed network. But as the government has continued to extend new rail lines throughout the country, and with no further catastrophic crashes, Chinese have begun to covet the economic opportunity brought by the new infrastructure. Linshui was not the first; as early as December 2008, residents of Shaoyang, a city in Hunan Province, passed around a petition after learning a planned high-speed rail line, slated to extend to major coastal metropolis Shanghai, would bypass their city. The petition, which called upon authorities to build the line through Shaoyang, garnered thousands of signatures, and city residents also staged a march in February 2009. In September 2014, residents from Xinye and Zhengzhou, two neighboring cities in the central province of Henan, staged several small-scale, grassroots demonstrations competing for their respective city’s inclusion in a high speed rail line slated to pass through one — but not both — of the cities. Chinese media outlets such as business magazine Caixin have dubbed such grassroots movements as the “battle for rail.”

While the size and violence of the Linshui protest qualified it as the kind of destabilizing mass incident that Chinese authorities are eager to suppress, the demonstration also highlights the growing popularity of high-speed rail – and the government policy that has underwritten its expansion. That may explain why the censorship surrounding images of the massive protest has been relatively light-handed. Though official censors deleted some commentary on microblogging platform Weibo, the protest so far seems to have avoided the complete Internet scrub that many sensitive incidents in China can merit. In addition to the Xinhua report, several mainstream news outlets carried reports on May 18, and “Linshui” was still searchable on Weibo. Even some online calls to unite and take action — a type of online speech usually swiftly deleted and sometimes even leading to intervention by authorities — escaped the censors’ axe. “Everyone, unite!” wrote one user, who self-identified as hailing from Linshui, on May 16 in a Weibo post that remained visible as of May 18. “The railway dream has been the hope of so many generations of Linshui residents. The people of Linshui need rail!”

Photo credit: Weibo/Fair Use


Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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