photo by Inmediahk (Flickr CC)

Recent protests against a giant copper plant planned for the town of Shifang in Sichuan Province, China yielded a victory for the local people against what was seen as a ramming through of a major industrial project by the local and national governments.

This was just the latest in a series of victories for local communities in China standing up against what they see as industrial projects that put economic concerns above those of the environment and human health. In recent years similar people power protests have been successful in Dalian, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

What characterized the success of the protests in Shifang was an unwillingness of people to back down in the face of severe warnings from the local government and police force; and a significant involvement both from local workers and technology-savvy students, the latter using social media to turn public opinion in their favor at the national level.

Another impressive aspect was that the people of Shifang chose their own health and that of the environment over what would have presumably been a major source of jobs and a significant boost to the local economy in an area where these two things are sorely needed. Shifang was majorly affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which economically devastated the region and killed around 70,000 people.

The people of China, especially the young and educated, as well as those most affected by environmental concerns (not wealthy or upwardly mobile entrepreneurs) are waking up to both the ecological consequences of rapid headlong economic growth policies and to the growing power of social media. The government is aware of these concerns and is struggling to balance them with its rigid commitment to economic growth. This is plainly not possible by continuing to pursue current policies, nor do strong-arm development policies backed by forceful police actions help the government’s standing in the eyes of the common people.

Read more about China’s new dynamic of social unrest in the Financial Times.

Read about China’s current pollution problems on CBC News.