Tea Leaf Nation

Meet China's Protest Archivist

Powered by the web, a former migrant worker is connecting local unrest to international audiences.

Chinese protesters often post photographs of their actions on social media, with the hope of drawing public scrutiny. But the images and tweets they share are often either censored, or get lost in the torrent of social media information that cascades across the screens and phones of 618 million wired Chinese. Since October 2012, one 34-year-old migrant worker has taken it upon himself to bridge this gap. 

That's when Lu Yuyu began a one-man project to document protests around China, powered by the Internet. Each day, Lu collects information about protests on social media outlets such as Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, QQ Space, and Baidu Space. After gathering and organizing the information, he publishes the results on his own online accounts. 

Lu left his home in 1996 in a small city in impoverished Guizhou province in western China to attend university in the provincial capital Guiyang in the mid-2000's. But he soon dropped out and, facing an uncertain future as a migrant worker, eventually drifted to the rich coastal city of Shanghai in 2012. He bounced from one odd job to the next and came to feel that "common people have no chance." He said he saw laborers exploited by bosses, and small businesses fleeced by the government. 

On April 8, 2012, Lu took his first step toward political activism. In support of five young people who were arrested in the southern city of Guangzhou for holding up placards that called for Chinese president Hu Jintao to disclose his assets, Lu went to Shanghai's busiest shopping street, Nanjing Road, and held up a similar poster. (Chinese Internet users have often called for asset disclosure by government officials as a way to reduce misconduct and corruption.)

The repercussions were swift. Lu claims he was detained and forced to leave Shanghai, and wandered from one city to another looking for jobs and meeting likeminded friends he found online. But state security were never far behind to give him warnings, threats, and the occasional beating. After three months, Lu finally settled down in Foshan, an industrial city in southern Guangdong province, and found a factory job. The police harassment had stopped, but Lu was still seething from the ordeal.

Lu said he eventually tired of abstract discussions with other Internet users about democracy and constitutional rights, instead starting to pay attention to specific incidents of activism. "These are people who had their land taken away, their food trucks destroyed, their drinking water contaminated, their wages withheld," Lu said. "I wanted to know, and I want others to know, their stories."

Each year, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a research organization under the powerful State Council, there are more than 100,000 "mass incidents," the officially accepted name for protests, riots, and other forms of social disorder in China. But because most mass incidents are confined to their respective localities, people outside of these regions scarcely know about them. As a result, according to University of Bridgeport political science professor Stephen Hess, "the outbreak of protest" in China, "while frequent and often highly charged, has emerged as a fragmented and localized phenomenon." 

Lu felt he could help connect these scattered voices to a wider audience. So far he's been right, but it hasn't been easy: Navigating China's pervasively censored Internet has required Lu to be in tune with a rapidly changing online lexicon to stay ahead of the censors. Words like "protest," "strike," "riot," and "demonstration" often don't last long online. Internet users sometimes respond by writing in code, mixing Chinese characters with Roman letters, using metaphors, and other tricks. Using a list of more than 100 phrases he's developed, which he refused to share, Lu believes he can capture most of the protests being shared online. Lu archives several dozen to more than two hundred incidents a day. He preserves pictures, descriptions of the events, comments from participants, and links to the source posts. Lu is able to avoid having his Internet cut-off by local police by using wireless Internet cards. As a result, his IP address changes constantly.

After finding an initial post about a protest, Lu tries to verify the information by tracking down other posts about the same incident. For example, on Feb. 17, Lu posted a message on Twitter about a protest against potential embezzlement in a Xiasha, a village in Guangdong. He had found the information while searching for the term "rights defense" on Weibo. Lu then searched for the keyword "Xiasha" on several other social media platforms, and immediately found more people posting about the same incident, some with geotags indicating location.

Lu said that he tries to verify what he sees. If a photo or a tweet has no corroborating sources, Lu does not post the incident on Weibo or Twitter. Lu said there have been "a few times" when the details of his reports turned out to be inaccurate, particularly details about the number of protesters. But Lu said he is being as careful as possible. 

Lu's work has not gone unnoticed. Feng Riyao, a reporter at nonprofit (and partially U.S. government-funded) Radio Free Asia, told Foreign Policy that she based her report on protests over the death of three schoolchildren in Henan province on Feb. 21 on Lu's post. "Most of the information is removed very quickly, sometimes in minutes. Without me capturing it, journalists couldn't find it," Lu added. From time to time, New York-based rights activist Wen Yunchao forwards Lu's findings as an untitled newsletter to foreign media outlets. (The most recent, dated January 20, is 50 pages long.) Wang Jiangsong, a labor relations specialist and professor at China Institute of Industrial Relations in Beijing, wrote on Weibo that Lu's work "documents and promotes the truth about labor and citizen movements, and it's great public service."

Lu has now taken to his work full time. In June 2013, Lu posted a fundraising letter on Weibo to help fund his work. Cobbling together the small donations that came in, mostly from people he had never met, Lu was able to raise enough money to quit his factory job. "Lu helped the protesters get their messages heard," said Liu Luo, a biology researcher based in Germany who donated to Lu. "Maybe he can't help them get what they ultimately want, but at least he made them feel supported and less isolated."

By Lu's account, during the one and a half years since he started recording protests, his social media accounts have been deleted more than 100 times. Police have come to his home twice to question him. They've also told him to "watch out for his safety." Strangers have also twice come over, pounded on his door and ordered him to leave Zhuhai, the southern city where he lived. Even friends who have helped him post pictures have been interrogated. But no matter what happens, Lu has no plans to relinquish his role as the Chinese web's protest archivist. "As long as I am not in jail I will continue to do it."

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Authorities' Tough Sell: Paraxylene

A new outbreak of NIMBY protests hits China's streets, and its Internet.

On the morning of March 30, hundreds of residents of Maoming, a medium-sized city in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, hit the streets to protest a proposed expansion to an existing petrochemical plant jointly run by local government authorities and Sinopec Corp, China's powerful state-owned oil company. The expansion includes plans to produce paraxylene, also known as PX, an important component in plastic bottles that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency believes may cause harmful side effects with long-term exposure. As images of protesters spread online, official efforts to seize the narrative have failed so far.

Chinese authorities exercise strict control over burgeoning "mass incidents," to use official argot referring to protests. But so-called not-in-my-backyard, or NIMBY, incidents arising from environmental concerns have become increasingly common in China in recent years along with heightened pollution concerns. Projects involving PX are a particular sore point. In June 2007, residents in the coastal city of Xiamen -- mobilized via a text-message campaign -- protested and successfully blocked the building of a plant that planned to produce paraxylene. Protests in the coastal city of Ningbo in October 2012 and northeastern city of Dalian in August 2011 also blocked paraxylene plants.

Perhaps mindful of the potency of NIMBY protests to become national news via social media -- and scuttle planned projects -- local authorities in Maoming first went on a media offensive. According to a March 31 press release from the Maoming municipal government, what began as a peaceful demonstration eventually turned into a violent confrontation between protesters and police when demonstrators began throwing rocks and plastic bottles. Though the official press release noted that there were no deaths, pictures depicting the demonstration -- as well as photos of bloodied protestors allegedly beaten by riot police, the burned-out frame of a police van, and paramilitary police marching in formation -- surfaced on Weibo, China's massive Twitter-like social media platform, before being swiftly deleted by censors. That same day, the official Weibo account of the Maoming municipal government's press office posted a notice criticizing the "grave [and] illegal activity" of protestors who had not obtained a proper permit from relevant authorities in violation of Chinese law, "seriously disturbing social order." The official notice also called upon residents to "believe the government" and only use "legal channels" to express their opinions about the PX plant.  

The government's online hardball seems to have backfired. Among more than 1,300 comments to the online notice, many criticized both the government's handling of the protest as well as its involvement in the petrochemical plant. One Weibo user asked rhetorically, "Who has ever seen an application for protest be approved?" In another popular comment, one user suggested sarcastically that in order to prove the plant is not harmful, Maoming officials should move their offices and homes next door, and "send their family members to work at the plant."  

Netizens also reacted with scorn to the Maoming government press office's seemingly conciliatory announcement, made later on March 31 -- perhaps in response to the online vitriol that greeted their initially hardball tactic -- stating that the plans were still in an initial "scientific stage," and that no action would be taken without first consulting popular opinion. In a popular riposte, one user asked, "Why is it that every time we have to use this kind of extreme method in order to get you to be transparent?"

On April 1, photos circulated suggesting that the protest spread to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. Images of peaceful demonstrators protesting next to the Guangdong Provincial Government circulated on Weibo with the caption, "People are expressing their demands in a peaceful, rational way." The spread has raised the protest's official profile; on April 1, China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, ran an article reiterating Maoming authorities' statement that "if the vast majority of residents are opposed, the Maoming government bureau will most certainly not go against the people's opinion."

While authorities have lightened criticism of protesters and acknowledged the legitimacy of grassroots concerns, authorities have nevertheless continued to insist that a PX plant would be beneficial. On March 31, the official media outlet Maoming Daily ran a front-page article called "PX in Daily Life," written by a Chinese government-sponsored chemical engineer, guaranteeing the safety of paraxylene. Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily also wrote on its official Weibo account, in a post shared over 18,000 times, that the "reason behind the public concern about PX is lack of trust in the environmental impact assessment, safety, and regulation of PX." It attached an article (excerpted in the above image) that sought to explain the industrial importance of paraxylene.

For many grassroots observers, assurances of paraxylene's safety miss the point. Zhao Chu, a military affairs expert with over 1 million Weibo followers, wrote in a post that was later deleted by censors, "Whether or not PX is toxic is a scientific question, but to build a PX-producing factory is an issue of local public policy, and the people of that region have a natural right to speak, as well as the right to participate in the final decision." Another Weibo user complained, that the protest's "main cause" was not the plant itself, but an "arrogant approach" by government that "makes nothing public or transparent."

Photo: Weibo/Free Use