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.
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?"
The complaining web users soon gathered into a more
organized community, which attracted a number of Weibo celebrities with a million-plus
followers each. At their appeal, thousands of citizens flooded the local
government offices with phone calls, filled its email inboxes with demands for
a public explanation for their actions, and took up cameras to snap photos of
places where trees were being unreasonably planted: under bridges, next to the
ocean, amid rocks. "Why is it so difficult for you [the government] to admit
your mistake?" Several frustrated web users asked.
The city government, focused on planting all 8 million trees
before the end of May, first ignored the pleas and censored relevant posts on
Weibo. When the movement against their project suddenly picked up momentum in
April, however, the officials seem to have been caught unprepared. One official
from the Qingdao Municipal Bureau of Landscape and Forestry compared the
outburst of discontent to a nuclear reaction, "it was so explosive." The force
of the public inquiries seems to have finally forced the government to respond,
if reluctantly, first through Internet announcements, newspaper briefings, television
interviews, and eventually with an unprecedented online live chat between the
city major and the citizens. Over 200,000 users logged on, crashing the server.