How do you prevent protests in China? Move the weekend.
That’s the Orwellian step taken by local authorities in the southwestern city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. May 4 is a sensitive date commemorating an influential student movement in 1919. It’s especially potent in Chengdu, where it marks the fifth anniversary of a protest against the construction of a $6 billion crude oil refinery and petrochemical facility in Pengzhou, 25 miles away.
As text messages circulated calling for another protest, authorities decided to fiddle with the calendar: For many, Saturday became a workday, and the day of rest was moved to Monday, May 6. So as Saturday dawned, schoolchildren straggled reluctantly back to class, and employees at government-run work units discovered the day was taken up by urgent meetings.
The authorities are fearful of public shows of discontent ahead of the Fortune Global Forum in June. The conference is a coming-out party for the city, crowning the construction of a massive new district in the south of Chengdu. So the police announced a “virtual combat exercise” this weekend, neatly coinciding with the planned protest.
At the appointed hour and location for would-be protesters — a covered bridge at the city center — at least five different kinds of security forces were on patrol. Police patrolled in pairs, with plainclothes police out in force and a fire engine handily parked down the street. At a nearby teahouse, several dozen anti-riot police dozed in their full gear, plastic handcuffs dangling from their vests, ready to spring into action should the need arise. Trucks of paramilitary police circled the town, while police patrolled university campuses.
The main square — overseen by a huge statue of Chairman Mao — was closed to visitors, with police officers stationed every 20 feet around its periphery. Though China now spends more on domestic security than on its military, such a citywide show of force is unprecedented.
The tentacles of the stability-maintenance machine go deep, and all of them swung into action in Chengdu. A woman who’d forwarded a message about the protest on social media was forced to apologize on television earlier in the week. At least 10 dissidents were put under house arrest or forced to “go on holiday,” according to a local human rights website. Meanwhile, employees at state-run work units were warned that they’d be sacked if they protested.
Then there was an enormous leafleting campaign. Households received letters from the government calling for “everyone to stand firm and not believe rumors, and not participate [in protests] in order to prevent people with other motives from seizing this opportunity to create turmoil.” The letters had the unintended effect of bringing the Pengzhou plant to the attention of those who hadn’t already heard about it, creating an even greater groundswell of suppressed discontent.
With China’s environmental crisis gathering pace after three decades of breakneck development, huge protests against plants producing a highly toxic chemical — paraxylene, also known as PX — have caused the government to halt construction of the petrochemical factories in the cities of Xiamen, Dalian and Ningbo in recent years. In Sichuan, fears are multiplied by the plant’s location close to a fault line that has produced two major earthquakes, including the Wenchuan quake five years ago, which killed tens of thousands of people. The government says the plant’s future is under review and promises strict tests before production begins, but the precedent — an assessment of its environmental impact five years ago that did not halt its construction — has not inspired much public confidence.
Since any attempt to protest would clearly have been unwise, some citizens protested in silence by wearing facemasks. Given the levels of pollution, however, this was ineffective. Others commented wryly that the police show of force represented a new “Chengdu model” of dissent, where the actual marching had been outsourced to the security forces.
Meanwhile, in the neighboring province of Yunnan, hundreds of protesters marched against a PX plant in the city of Kunming. The authorities there had neglected to take the precaution of moving the weekend, leaving residents with plenty of time in which to protest.