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China’s Environmental Activists

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On a sunny summer's day in the city of Kunming, a leafy town in southern China famous for its mild climate, Mayor Li Wenrong found himself in a bind. Hundreds of angry protesters were marching outside the city government building, the second such demonstration in as many weeks. After four hours of chanting - and as the police presence continued to build - the mayor decided to go out and address the crowd.

Their demands were clear. They wanted the mayor to halt the construction of a giant new petrochemical plant that was under way in a neighbouring county. In particular, the protesters were concerned about the pollution the plant would release as a byproduct of producing paraxylene, a chemical used in plastics.

As Mayor Li tried to address the crowd, he found the crowd addressing him too. Why hadn't the public been consulted before construction began, people wanted to know. Why weren't the local papers allowed to write critically about the plant? Why wasn't he holding a public referendum and letting everyone vote on the matter? These were some of the questions that flew at the mayor, according to the accounts of those present.

Standing stony-faced amid a thick security detail, Mayor Li experienced, in physical form, the dilemma that is facing the Chinese government as environmental protests grow. On the one hand, the country's leadership has publicly committed to tackling the chronic pollution that has accompanied the economic growth of the past three decades - the same goal environmentalists share. At the same time, the forces unleashed by China's environmental movement are often deeply unsettling to the country's authoritarian officials.

The protests in Kunming this summer, which resembled dozens of similar cases across the country, might never have happened if it weren't for China's new social-media platforms. Demonstrators in Kunming found out about the plant and decided to take action by communicating on Weibo, a Twitter-like "microblogging" service, and through WeChat, an instant messaging service for smartphones. Although construction of the plant is still going ahead, Mayor Li has made at least one change to his governing style: he now has a Weibo account. 
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