Chinese authorities preempt protests over smog in Chengdu
During December, environmental concerns drove protests in the southwestern city of Chengdu as residents mobilised over poor air quality. Citizens protested by placing masks on statues around the city as a symbol of their discontent in an incident that has come to epitomise China's struggle to balance industrial growth with environmental protection. According to local reports, severe smog on the 6th December reduced visibility to zero and forced many to wear face masks; prompting local residents to take action. After seeing reports of a planned gathering on social media site Weibo, Chinese authorities quickly intervened by arresting one organiser and deploying riot police. Security forces then cordoned off an area of the city to ensure no mobilisation could occur; a tactic thought by many to be disproportionate to peaceful protests over legitimate environmental concerns. A large number of police were stationed in the area for several days to crackdown on any further gatherings. Many environmental activists have viewed the response by Chinese authorities as indicative of an administration that is deeply sensitive to protests over air-quality.
While the government recently announced a five-year plan to reduce pollution, many environmental activists fear that emissions from coal-fired power plants, factories and vehicles are already at unsafe levels, particularly in industrial centres. In Chengdu, some claim that a local petrochemical plant has exacerbated the thick smog.
To coincide with Human Rights Day, the European Union (EU) and the United States issued a statement expressing their grave concern for the ongoing detention of Chinese lawyers and political prisoners who criticise the government. Since July 2015, China has jailed over 250 lawyers and activists, cracking down on freedom of expression, rule of law, feminism, and religion. The statement from the EU said:
'During the past year, we have been extremely troubled about the deterioration of the situation with respect to freedom of expression and association.'
120 authors also joined the chorus of calls on Chinese president Xi Jinping to improve conditions for freedom of speech in the country. The letter, signed by many internationally acclaimed writers, drew attention to the detention of several Chinese authors, including Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo who was imprisoned in 2008 for his peaceful activism.
Calls to improve freedom of expression in China come at a time when authorities have recently released new Internet Domain Name Management Rules requiring all internet domains to be registered through government-licensed service providers. The new regulation forces all citizens of China to register their domain through real name verification, meaning that authorities can trace and target anyone expressing anti-government sentiments online. Many fear that these unnecessary regulations will lead to increased self-censorship in an already constrained environment for independent dissent.