Liaoyang-Dalian: The Transformation of China’s Rust Belt Unrest

The 14 August 2011 protests in Dalian, forcing the closing of a major chemical plant there, have inspired a fair amount of news in the Anglophone and Sinophone press.

Now the Guardian’s essential environmental correspondent, Jonathan Watts, takes the analysis to a new level, describing the role of social class in forcing the environmental issue to the fore — or, in other words, the power of the white collar Dalianites to force change while poor and rural Chinese languish in pollution pools.

One angle which Watts does not explore, and which I have yet to see parsed, is the extent to which social unrest or grass-roots protest activity has transformed in Liaoning province over the past decade.  An excellent reference paper can be found in this working paper on the Liaoyang protests over the Fero-Alloy Plant in 2002.

Affluence and change in Liaoning province certainly struck me in Shenyang earlier this month, where the compression between new and old, rich and poor, is striking in ways that “second-tier” cities like Chengdu, dating to a somewhat earlier round of development, only approximate in patches.

I spent exactly a week this summer living in the Dalian Special Economic Zone, where the plant in question is located, and talking to the very white collar workers whose offices are nearby the plant.  This is a place quite apart from Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province, where wealth is regarded as a kind of surprise, slow in coming, dusty, where environmental devastation is taken as a fact of life.  (Where, by the way, is the reporting on the changes in the Tiexi district?  Why is it that filmmakers seem to have taken the lead as the true modern anthropologists?)  In Dalian as in Shanghai, there is a strong sense of entitlement in having “made it”, having clawed to the top of a difficult and teeming hierarchy of tests and knowledge and workplace challenges that bring one, finally, to the city of apples, foreign cheeses, direct flights to everywhere and temperate summers.  The extent to which a chemical plant threatens this (now lost?) paradise is a particularly fascinating question that Watts grasps at, but it is important to place Dalian in its regional context (as well as to compare it to Yunnan, since everywhere on earth really ought to be compared to Yunnan at some point).  Once we place Dalian in its Liaoning context — even though so many of its mobile workers, particularly in the Special Economic Zone, hail from other regions of China — we can gain some small insight into the outlook for further “environmental movements,” such as they are and might become, in the PRC.

Having been blasted out of the barrel of the San Francisco Bay Area this morning, little time remains for this author to parse the transformation much further or delve into the rusty guts of beloved Liaoyang, but it (the metamorphosis, that is) is worthy of more type, more ink, more thought, more words, and more speech, if not beating of drums and flinging of digital images.

A Dalian artist brings the hard truth, December 2010, image via 南方周末; click image for link to the story "The End of 'Great Dalian'," an August 2011 which I began to tear apart in the back of a fossil-burning taxi blazing 167 yuan to Pudong Airport in Shanghai from the Municipal Library wherein Guomindang periodicals were parsed and the fate of the nation only vaguely sensed


  1. Excellent reading. Truly the parallel approach to classes. One wonders how long rural China accepts its deteriorating conditions of existence before it withdraws the mandate from heaven, or has that concept disappeared from the rural universe?
    Severe water shortages and wildly fluctuating weather conditions. Depressed prices for produce. Overbearing cadres. Truly crap system of education for their children. Health care which drains scant savings.
    Is it time for rural millennialism? If so, it wont be pretty and it will involve farm implements.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s