Modu Magazine: A Tale of Urban China

Urbanism and cyber contestations in China

The number of Chinese web users reached 505 million in November 2012, representing a diffusion rate of 37.7%. While various international social networks such as Youtube, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook are banned, there are also Chinese equivalents: Weibo, Renren, Douban, Youku (see image on top).

However, Chinese internet users play with censorship and invest in the blogosphere and other social networks of the web era 2.0[1], including various news forums of public opinion and protest[2]. With more than 300 million users, microblogs are the primary source of information for these users. Here, different stories regularly make a buzz, forcing authorities to react. From this perspective, problems associated with the rapid urbanization of the country are among the primary issues that cause internet users to mobilize. In 2011 and 2012, the village of Wukan was a good example of local disputes which went on to gain national and international prominence as the result of social media.

Available resources

Michel Offerlé[3] , a French political scientist, distinguishes three main categories of resources available to social movements. Firstly the number, that is to say the ability, to mobilize large workforces. Secondly, there is expertise, depending on the skills of group members and/or their ability to mobilize competent individuals to influence others and facilitate persuasion. Finally, the use of scandal to report on a situation and heighten public awareness on the issues. The participatory dimension of the web 2.0 makes it easy to build on these three resources. More clearly, the web 2.0 allows the internet user to interact and identify with a community.

The networking of web users allows the broadcasting and collection of information on unprecedentedly large scales. Yet in addition, it also critically enables the creation of an alternative expertise that shapes public opinion by forcing official media to also mobilize and respond. The government has also realized the importance of responding to such viral initiatives and reactions by providing more information or officially justifying its actions in order to prevent the spread of rumours or panic. At times, the reactions and mobilizations of the online community have even led to the modification or adjustment of urban policies. As such, today urban policies can be seen as also under the supervision of an array of netizens who may dispute their merits. With the development of these forms of cyber-mobilization, one may wonder about what these new tools contribute by questioning the shape, purpose and efficiency of these challenges, particularly with respect to the collaborative aspect of these urban social movements (see schema inspired by the work of Michel Offerlé, Sociology of interest groups, Paris, Montchrestien, 1996).

In recent years, various events have led to the establishment of participatory websites encouraging Internet users to submit information or photos with the goal of denouncing and criticizing current urban policies. Through a large number of contributors, these collaborative platforms are based on a kind of civilian ‘scandal reporting’, but also focus on the development of an alternative expertise that constitutes a counter-power. In mainland China, these mobilization efforts include concerns around the violence of real estate developments, while in Hong Kong environmental issues are also quite prominent

Real estate

Netizens often firstly chose to use these scandal resources by publicizing shocking events. In the spring of 2007, the “nail house” of Chongqing, the lone surviving property holding out amidst a sprawling real estate development project, gained international fame after it was posted by blogger “Zola”. Ultimately, because of this widespread media coverage, the owner received an even better compensation. In China and beyond, the story also shed light on the violent evictions of modest inhabitants to make room for massive building complexes, often constructed for purposes of real estate speculation.

In 2010, an anonymous internet user with the pseudonym Xuefangditu, literally “bloody real estate map”[4], chose to list all violent evictions related to real estate projects in the country. The blogger aimed to denounce China’s rapid urbanization for destroying lives and hoped to launch a protest movement against these new housing developments.

The map (see sources) was published on October 8, 2010 and on the 20th of the same month, Xinhua news agency dedicated an article to the topic. One week later, dozens of different Chinese media outlets were discussing the issue. At the end of December 2010, a Goggle search of the phrase “bloody map” elicited more than 1,640,000 results. According to statistics from Baidu, China’s premier search engine, the Chinese were even more interested in this map than national sensation Li Yuchun, who had dominated headlines in previous weeks as the celebrated winner of a reality TV program.

The blog uses Google Maps and, based on Wikipedia, calls for the participation of internet users to collect, upload, verify, and discuss information. Users can zoom in on the map and find the exact location of each incident. A small icon also represents the nature of the event: a hospital bed for death, a flame for immolation by fire, or a volcano for an important event. The question mark indicates that information has not yet been verified.

In addition to the scandal reporting primarily featured on blogs, this collaborative map relies on the reports, will, and diligence of users to maintain relevance. The map has the potential to become a significant tool for monitoring and evaluating the Chinese government’s urban policies. It may further become a critical reference for those looking to make ethical choices when it comes to the location of their residence.

Different events are reported, such as the self-immolation of Tang Fuzhen in November 2009. After a long opposition against the demolition of her house in the outskirts of Chengdu, this 47-year-old woman doused herself with gasoline and, standing on the rooftop of her home while a demolition crew entered the house and beat her sister and her husband, immolated herself. Tragically, she died in the hospital two weeks later. A video of the suicide recorded on a mobile phone was made widely available on the web, and was eventually even broadcast on CCTV. The incident has affected public opinion by raising awareness of the abuses of forced evictions and their relationship to the urbanization and development of the country.

Pollution

The Institute of Public Environmental Affairs (IPE), a local Chinese environmental protection NGO, was created in 2006 by Ma Jun. Ma gained notoriety in the 1990s by producing documentary films that investigated the environmental degradation of Hong Kong for the South China Morning Post. From his field experience, he published a book in 1999 entitled, Water crisis in China: a work now widely recognized as a milestone by China’s environmental protection community for the awareness it raised across the country.

The IPE has recently developed a map that represents various forms of pollution. The map is intended to be used to evaluate environmental status through the identification and surveillance of major pollutants. This information platform is the result of a collection of more than 97,000 different sources, mainly data from different levels of government, and includes reads of water pollution, air quality, and the release of various other hazardous pollutants. Users can click on their own region to display all available public data on water quality and the name of the polluting factories or companies.

Through this monitoring, IPE hopes to facilitate information transparency and to mobilize various stakeholders in environmental governance: individuals, civil society groups, private companies, and various levels of government. Another objective is to encourage buyers, especially multinationals, to choose their suppliers based on their lawful and wholesome environmental practices.

From the same perspective, the work of the photographer Wang Jiuliang is also interesting. Using Google Earth (see source and a screenshot), he maps garbage dumps around Beijing, highlighting the significance of a capital of 18 million people that produces 18,000 tons of waste per day.

Citizenship

The administrative region of Hong Kong offers somewhat of a contrast, with only 30% of the urbanized area characterized by skyscrapers and high density. On the other hand, 70% of the Hong Kong’s territory is still natural, with 40% protected by the government. However, given the vastness of the territory, the resources of the administration appear to be rather ill-equipped, limited, and at times poorly coordinated, with only a few hundred employees across three different departments. In addition, fines and penalties imposed on offenders are quite low. A kind of impunity has thus emerged for developers, who often also have significant connections within the governing bodies. As a result, 93% of the 20,485 cases of illegal occupations of natural areas between 2005 and 2009 were exposed by public complaints.

The South China Morning Post, a reputable Hong Kong English newspaper, has launched an initiative that utilizes the Kenyan technology Ushaihidi[5] to highlight environmental violations reported by citizens as a part of an interactive website. The project calls for environmental citizenship, love of nature, and social responsibility amongst the people of Hong Kong. The site motto succinctly summarizes their approach: “For Hong Kong by Hong Kong”.

The need for such a tool arises from an increasing awareness of the growing number of environmental violations in Hong Kong. These include illegal waste dumping, as well as illegal construction in protected zones that result in deforestation. In 2010, the main environmental controversy involved the destruction of a part of the natural landscape of Tai Long Sai Wan in Sai Kung. The businessman Simon Lo Lin-Shing wanted to build an impressive villa here, with a swimming pool, tennis courts, organic gardens and artificial ponds. The press then revealed that the project was situated within an archaeological site while environmentalists pointed out that the foundation’s work and truck traffic within protected zones had already caused serious environmental damage. The government has since then responded by issuing a three-year moratorium on the project.

In the face of these developments, The Citizen Map (see screenshot) offers an informational tool to verify and to publicize these issues, in an attempt to influence the political agenda of the government. After a week, 20 events were reported. In January 2011, there were nearly 120. Today, the Citizen map is limited to environmental issues, but creators recently announced in an official statement that, in the future, it may expand to include other themes.

The Citizen map offers Hong Kong residents an opportunity to actively support the strengthening of civil society by acting as a steward of nature. It further enables citizens to keep an eye on the government and the too-friendly relationships that could develop between wealthy economic elites.

Towards a collaborative urbanism

In comparison with the urban struggles of the 1960s and 1970s in Western countries, the nature of engagement and activism has significantly evolved with the use of digital mediums. While the internet seems to easily accommodate the expression of various urban social movements, new social networks are transformed into forums for public debate, offering a form of virtual public space.

Virtual platforms make it possible to bypass police controls encountered in public space (in mainland China but not in Hong Kong). On the other hand, the internet connects citizens, gathers information, and spreads key themes. Compared with traditional urban struggles, this protest 2.0 brings together a large number of people in a shorter period of time, gives greater significance to events, and reveals unpublished expert capabilities that appear through the participatory processes. The internet then reveals urban social movements with a more flexible hierarchy and a collective type of organization, giving way to more individual forms of engagement, and thus offering new horizons of engagement by facilitating a collective intelligence.

However, the objectives of these mobilizations remain the same. Chinese activists of the digital era are fighting like their Western predecessors of the 1960s and 1970s against the destruction of old neighbourhoods and forced expulsions, and generally, for the development of a city that does not exclude the marginal. Evoking the “right to the city”, they proclaim an alliance with the radical goals of urban theorist Henri Lefebvre[6]. Hong Kong activists add another dimension to this struggle by diversifying the purposes of the mobilization. In these new social movements, the demands are not only materialistic, but have also become post-materialistic, as demonstrated by the Citizen Map.

Beyond the scenes of conflict that mobilize these netizens, their demands constitute a denunciation of the current practices of urban planning and manufacturing processes of the city. This raises the question of a collaborative turning point in urban planning. It remains to be seen whether these urban social movements will help the emergence of alternative forms of leadership and rebound in physical public space to truly influence the course of urban political agendas. Time will tell whether this protest 2.0 carries forward a new urban planning practice, one that might be more collaborative, sustainable, and inclusive.

Notes

[1] Concept proposed by Tim O’Reilly in 2005; this concept emphasizes the transition to a participatory web. The internet corresponds then to a collective intelligence where each user is part of a social network.

[2] Pierre Haski, The Internet and China, Paris, Seuil, 2008; Guobin Yang, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, NYC, Columbia University Press, 2009; Zixue Tai, The Internet in China: Cyberspace and Civil Society, NYC, Routledge, 2006; Hesmès No. 55, « Civil Society and the Internet in China and East Asia », 2010; SéverineArsène, « Online discussions in China », in Chinese Perspectives, No. 2008/2, 2008, p. 88-99; Douay N., 2011, « Urbanism and Chinese netizens, the protest 2.0 is preparing » in Chinese Perspectives, Hong Kong, French Centre for Research on Contemporary China, No. 2011/1, pp.86-88; Severo M., T. Giraud, & N. Douay, 2012, The Revolt of Wukan seen by the international media in Geomedia, Dossier No. 3, CIST.

[3] Michel Offerlé, Sociology of interest groups, Paris, Montchrestien, 1996.

[4] Douay N., Severo M. & Giraud T., 2012, « The map of blood of Chinese real estate, a cyber-activism case » in Geographic Information (in French), Douay N. & M. Prévot (dir.), « Urban activism: engagement and militancy », Armand Colin, Paris, Vol. 76, No. 1, pp. 74-88 (in French).

[5] Ushaihidi is a Google Map mash-up that allowed Kenyans to report and trace violence through SMS on mobile phones in the days following the 2008 elections. This technology has now progressively evolved, its uses diversifying in other countries.

[6] Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, Paris, Anthropos, 1968.

  • 2013/01/07

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  • Nicolas Douay

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The Author

Nicolas Douay

Nicolas Douay is a lecturer in urban planning at the University Paris-Diderot (Paris 7) and a researcher at the laboratory Geography-Cities (CRIA team). After obtaining his PhD from the University of Montreal and the University Paul Cézanne (Aix-Marseille 3), he was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship Lavoisier at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC - Hong Kong). His research focuses on comparative approaches between Asia (China & Hong Kong), Europe (France) and North America (Canada) and on the process of metropolitization, particularly with respect to urban policies, and processes of territorial planning and urban activism.

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