BEIJING — More than international prestige or even economic might, the top priority of China’s leadership is to maintain stability among this nation’s vast and varied population. President Hu Jintao explicitly reaffirmed that goal just last month, telling a Communist Party celebration that “without stability, nothing can be accomplished.”
In the aftermath of a large protest on Sunday in a major metropolis in northeast China, Dalian, that craving for rigid orderliness appears increasingly ephemeral. In the face of ever more sophisticated efforts to control and guide expression, significant protests — and visceral public shows of unhappiness with government — appear to be becoming regular features of life.
By official estimates, 12,000 demonstrators marched in Dalian — by other estimates, many more — to demand the removal of the expensive new Fujia chemical factory, whose Pacific coast sea wall had been breached a week earlier in a typhoon. The plant makes paraxylene, a toxic chemical used to make polyester products. It can cause illness and, if concentrated, death.
The mostly peaceful protest was one of the largest reported in nearly three years. It included the extraordinary scene of the city’s Communist Party secretary standing atop a car, pleading with demonstrators to go home and promising to close and move the $1.5 billion plant. Some responded by demanding a date.
China’s embrace of wireless communications — first cellphone text messages, then Internet chat rooms and Twitterlike microblogs — has fueled such protests, allowing the disaffected to share grievances in a way never before possible. Dalian’s protesters flooded microblogs with photos, reposting them as fast as censors could delete them.
“Once it was happening, I could follow everything through the pictures,” said one person in Dalian, Ma Lei, who considered joining the demonstration but was deterred by the police.
The protest mirrored one in mid-2007, when thousands of demonstrators in Xiamen, in southeast China, forced local officials to abandon plans for a plant making the same chemical.
But more broadly, scholars speak of a revolution of rising expectations in which Chinese citizens, growing more educated and wealthier, think their government should better protect their health, safety and other interests.
“People are more aware of their rights, and they are demanding more rights and better protection of their interests,” said Yiyi Lu, an Asia scholar in Beijing with the research institute Chatham House.
The government is more responsive, she said, but it is still “not reacting fast enough,” she said. “That is why there is growing discontent.”
Some question whether China’s middle class is eager to assert itself. “The power of civil society is growing, but it is still very weak,” said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at Beijing Institute of Technology.
By the last available official count, so-called mass incidents — a term that appears to cover group actions ranging from minor work stoppages to serious riots — numbered 74,000 in 2004, up from 10,000 in 1993.
In a February article in Economic Observer, a Chinese weekly publication, Sun Liping, a sociologist at Tsinghua University, wrote that a government academy estimated that such cases had doubled between 2006 and 2010, reaching 180,000 last year.
In one of the biggest protests, about 30,000 people demonstrated in Guizhou Province in 2008 over what the government said was a bevy of grievances with local officials. Thousands more took part in ethnic riots in the Xinjiang region in 2009.
This year, at least 2,000 Yunnan Province residents demonstrated in March against their evictions to make way for a power station. In April, 2,000 Shanghai residents flipped a police car and set motorcycles afire after urban security guards beat a migrant worker and his wife.
In May, Mongolians in Xilinhot and Hohhot staged widespread protests after an ethnic Han driver killed an ethnic Mongol herder. In June, a crowd said to number in the thousands rioted in Guangdong Province after a peaceful protest over a wage dispute spun out of control.
Public reaction took time to build after the Fujia sea wall was breached. But the protest on Sunday showed clear signs of advance planning: demonstrators had large anti-Fujia banners, T-shirts, professionally printed placards and even face masks.
Although the government said one group of demonstrators pelted police officers with plastic bottles of water and other objects, the protest appears to have been mostly peaceful. Some participants sang the national anthem.
If the commitment by local leaders to move the two-year-old plant is carried out, the scale of the protesters’ victory would set a benchmark. The plant, a joint venture between a state-owned chemical company and a local real estate giant, is said to contribute more than $300 million in taxes to the local government each year.
The Chinese media reported that officials were so eager to open it that they did not wait for environmental approval, another instance in a pattern of officials’ elevating economic development over health and safety that worries many Chinese.
Dalian’s compromise also points to a paradox that Communist Party leaders face as they begin — pressed by China’s top leaders — to pay more attention to local grievances.
“You can find many examples of the government trying to better meet people’s demands,” said Ms. Lu, of Chatham House. “But when you improve your service, that creates more demand.”
In particular, she said, the slow move toward more government transparency, in areas like official expenses, has encouraged citizen watchdogs to point out waste and abuse, further hurting trust in government.
Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a nonprofit Beijing group, said the Dalian case showed that officials should be open at the start. Better, he said, to get public input and genuine environmental assessments before approving major projects. “It is high time to open up the decision-making process.”
By Monday, censors were wiping the topic off microblogs. They also canceled a news show last week about dangerous projects in Dalian just before it was to be shown on CCTV, China’s government-controlled television network.
When the host, Bai Yansong, complained online, his microblog on Sina Weibo was frozen. He struck back on another account. “This is the public information sphere!” he wrote. “I really don’t know what you are afraid of.”