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Social Media Endangers and Empowers China’s Activists

A green activist named Chen Yuqian claims to have been beaten by a group of forty thugs for “using the internet” to publicize pollution in the Zhejiang province where he lives. We reported on a Chinese entrepreneur’s $32,000 offer to a local environmental official to swim in a polluted river; emboldened by the creativity of this dare and an accessible medium for activism, many Zhejiang residents took to Weibo offering cash incentives of their own to draw attention to appalling pollution of the region’s waterways.

According to China’s Ministry for Water Resources, twenty percent of China’s water is too toxic for humans to safely touch, and the FT reports that seventy percent of Chinese rivers are seriously polluted. To call attention to this byproduct of China’s unrestrained growth, people are taking pictures of polluted waterways and posting them to Weibo. It’s happening across China, too. The FT reports of a similar incident in Shandong province:

The debate over groundwater pollution…was sparked by a short, pointed microblog post earlier this month on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblog service. It quickly went viral, and recently the issue of water pollution has been raised on primetime television….

In the initial Weibo post, activist Deng Fei accused aluminium smelters in Weifang of illegally pumping wastewater underground into pressurised wells. The issue struck a chord with Mr Deng’s 3m followers…. “With Weibo, any person can be a reporter,” says Mr Deng.

This strategy is effective: it’s got us reading about the goings-on of provinces we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. But Chen’s violent experience highlights the dangers of speaking out in a country that would sooner silence dissent than entertain it. Weibo got Chen into trouble with local thugs, but it also gave him a platform to respond to the attack. In his own words: “I wrote about this on my microblog account because there was no response to my reporting it to the authorities.”

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