The $630-Million Trees That Sparked a Social Media Revolt in China

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When officials spent billions of yuan to blanket Qingdao with pricey foliage, citizens fought back online.

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Qingdao officials plant a tree, one of up to eight million. (Dongying city government).

The project rolled out like many others in major Chinese cities: bulldozers wiped over the verdant grass field next to the coast, spades overturned the granite blocks blanketing the city squares, and nearly two million crescent-shaped tree holes popped out in less than a month, along the avenues, by the beach, and under overpasses, turning the serene port city on China's Pacific coast into a dirt sieve. The new mayor of Qingdao, a major city in Shandong province, was pushing forward a massive tree-planting campaign to make his city a "National Forest City" by 2014. It is an act that should have surprised no one in China, where more skyscrapers are shooting up than could be filled, and roads are being reconstructed faster than taxi drivers could keep track. Like these urban developments, the Qingdao tree-planting campaign is part of a Beijing-led surge in national infrastructure spending, a stimulus meant to restore the country's flagging economy.

This innocent-sounding campaign in Qingdao, however, has turned into a tug-of-war between the city government and local residents since its launch in late February. After a few concerned citizens spoke out against what they saw as wasteful spending, their campaign has caught fire on wider Chinese social media and spread to even the tight-lipped state media. The battle has mobilized the Chinese public on an unusual scale and engaged them in an intense civil bargain with the government, the sort of which is rarely seen in today's China.

" I don't really care about politics. But it all changed after the new mayor took over our city and started planting trees."

When the plan to "Construct a Green Qingdao" was first announced in 2009, in typical Chinese government fashion with slogans veiling details of implementation, it went largely unnoticed by local citizens. It was not until they saw the bulldozing in late March of a large patch of green grass in a local park, a favorite spots for citizens to fly kites, take after-dinner strolls, and go on dates, did the angry murmuring begin. Many long-term residents said they felt the act violated their fond childhood memories of the old city, and posted old pictures of the park on Internet forums side-by-side with new ones of the destroyed grass. The discontent was soon exacerbated by an official announcement that the tree-planting budget for 2012 alone would be 4 billion yuan -- about $630 million.

"Four billion for planting trees ... do you know how many people in Qingdao can't afford medical cost? If you take out one tenth of your tree-planting budget, we can all have universal health care coverage," a Weibo user named national grassroot anti-corruption association wrote.

User sinnryuu, complaining about the hefty cost of her niece's kindergarten education, suggested, "Why not invest the money instead into building schools?" .

Others questioned why officials, before making a decision that would affect the lives of so many, had not sought public approval first, and demanded the right to know the minutiae of the project and spending plans.

"I am 27 this year...and I don't really care about politics. But it all changed after the new mayor took over our city and started planting trees," Panuu wrote in an open letter he posted on Weibo in early April. He included the relevant clauses from the Chinese Constitution that entitle citizens the right to criticize government practices, the transcript of his phone conversations with various branches of city government (which invariably shunned his inquiries), and an approximate calculation of the labor and inventory cost for the project. "Who decided the number 4 billion? How are they spending it? Who is there to supervise? ... Is the density of the trees going to affect our normal life? What is our land size per capita after the project is finished?"

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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