2008-03-12

China's middle class becomes growing force


SHANGHAI (AFP) — Shanghai resident Lu Guanfeng answers the door at his mid-sized, luxuriously furnished apartment wearing slippers and a button pin that reads "No Maglevs!"

The lapel pin is one of the many tools Lu has used to help organise a citizens' campaign that has at least temporarily derailed a government plan to extend a magnetic levitation train in China's financial centre.

Although well past noon, Lu, 43, has been awake just a couple of hours thanks to an online skin-care business that requires only a few hours of attention a day to earn him enough money to pay his mortgage and bills.

Lu's routine may not be typical of most residents of this quiet southwest Shanghai suburb, but his status as a home-owner is -- the pin also indicative of China's emerging middle class keen and savvy enough to protect its interests.

"I think we needed to protect our legal rights in a rational way," Lu, the self-proclaimed organiser of the campaign, told AFP as he chain-smoked Davidoff brand cigarettes and sipped Coca-Cola.

Like other residents at Green World apartments, Lu is content with his home, so when residents got wind of a government plan to extend the high-tech train through their neighbourhood, they took action.

Their campaign, conducted mainly online and with carefully low-key demonstrations, was centred on fears about the potential for radiation poisoning as the Maglev train would shoot past homes at speeds of up to 430 kilometres (266 miles) per hour.

While the health concerns are in theory legitimate, what residents really worried about was that the 4.3-billion-dollar addition running to the city of Hangzhou would sharply devalue their new homes.

"I put all my savings, all of my life, and if the Maglev were to pass through here, this would be worth nothing," said Zhu Xiulan, a retiree at nearby Pingyan Green Gardens.

Their campaign was so effective that city mayor Han Zheng announced in Beijing last week that the project, which was supposed to begin construction this year, had been shelved.

It was a rare victory for Chinese citizens whose grievances usually fall on officials' deaf ears, with projects typically rammed through with the support of a police force that all too often puts down any form of dissent with an iron fist.

Demonstrations in China typically involve discontented blue-collar workers and farmers who gather and mill outside government buildings in vain hopes an official will emerge to listen to their complaints.

Often, they end with the arrests of protesters and at times with bloodshed and death.

The Maglev protest, however, was no ordinary campaign. Educated and media savvy residents used a multi-pronged strategy to get their message out.

They hung huge banners from their homes, held weekly strategic meetings and drew the attention of the press, eventually forcing the government to listen when thousands marched on one of the metropolis' busiest streets in January.

A similar case occurred last year when residents of the southeastern city of Xiamen forced officials to reconsider a plan for a petrochemical plant following sustained protests from citizens who labelled it an "atomic bomb".

Work on the billion-dollar project in the port was halted, with city mayor Liu Cigui saying in Beijing last week that the project would likely be moved elsewhere, according to China's official Xinhua news agency.

In another high-profile case, the owners of a restaurant and home in the southwest city of Chongqing won national admiration last April for their defiance to give in to a government-backed real estate project.

While no one believes that China is on the verge of a middle-class inspired democratic revolution, the protests in Shanghai and elsewhere do reflect a greater willingness by those more empowered citizens to speak out.

"It reflects the issues of the middle class, not cars and money, but... the quality of life and health," said Joseph Cheng, a political observer at the City University of Hong Kong.

"But there is no intention to confront the authorities," said Cheng. "You don't want to get into trouble."

Conversely, Cheng said authorities were slowly realising that using force to deal with mass protests reflecting public grievances was counterproductive.

"This is a real trend," Cheng said.

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