BY HAO CHEN


Hao Chen is a first-year student at SAIS focusing on China studies.


How did a nationwide protest, triggered by trees, even happen in authoritarian but information-saturated China? In the social media age, internet-based political participation and a pluralized policy process in China have allowed new development of state-society relations. 

In the late 1980s, a fragmented authoritarianism[1] model of power emerged as prominent in the world of China studies, and has remained in place ever since. In this model,[2] more government participants have entered the policymaking process, and policy entrepreneurs can manipulate the framing of key issues to mobilize support, drastically affecting the politics. Policies are also shaped by bureaucratic bargaining, and by manipulating tensions among government agencies, demonstrating bureaucratic pluralization—different agencies pursue their own interests, rather than the interests of the whole. This elite bargaining has allowed observers to see the actual disjointed, decentralized configuration of the party-state—and a new media era has continued to highlight the messy model. Previously, people had believed that a Party leader’s order would be implemented; however, it has become clear that there is a space for debate, maneuvering, and policy-shaping by different agencies. The Nanjing metro construction case, which was rated by Chinese environmental NGO Friends of Nature as one of the “Top Ten Events of Public Participation in Environmental Protection in China 2011” is quintessential as an example of this pluralized politic in action.

Nanjing is a city filled with iconic, jumbo plane trees. Mighty trunks and regal canopies of leaves shelter the streets. The plane trees were first planted extensively in the city in the late 1920s by the Nationalist government, which had made Nanjing its capital. Modern avenues were constructed and decorated by the plane trees for leader Sun Yat-sen’s funeral ceremonies. By the 1960s, it is reported that there were an estimated 200,000 such trees in Nanjing.[3] Their green platanus have become a signature of the city. But a question began to develop: would these trees be able to survive the construction and infrastructure projects of development-hungry China? The short answer is no. Since the 1990s, Nanjing’s plane trees have been removed en masse to make way for urban construction projects. In 1993, more than 3000 were felled to make way for the Shanghai-Nanjing Expressway; similarly, thousands were removed for a new subway line development in 2006.[4]

In March 2011, a planned massive removal of trees, due to the construction of a third subway line, provoked a strong opposition movement. The planned metro line was part of an infrastructure plan to improve public transportation in advance of the 2014 Youth Olympic plans, and the gigantic trees were in its path.  

Building a Movement

 On March 1 , 2011, pictures of damaged trees were posted online, igniting citizen anger. On March 9, the photos were sent to Huang Jianxiang (黄健翔), a famous Nanjing-born sports commentator in CCTV, who has millions of followers on social network Weibo. Huang passed the information to other celebrities who had lived in Nanjing, including film director Lu Chuan (陆川), hosts of television shows like Le Jia (乐嘉) and Meng Fei (孟非), and film stars such as Yao Chen (姚晨) and Zhao Wei (赵薇), with high degrees of publicity. As celebrities posted and shared the photographs, it launched a nationwide explosion of public opinion.  

Simultaneously, journalists, experts, and NGOs articulated persuasive narratives and offered an alternative perspective from the government’s, based on investigations and research. Zhu Fulin (朱福林), a reporter for Nanjing Morning Post, and Cai Jianhua (蔡建华), a researcher from the Institute of Botany, traced what had happened to trees that had already been replanted five years ago from another construction project. They found that 80% of the trees had died after being replanted—and they broadcast this information, challenging the government’s promise that the replanted trees were still healthy. Environmental NGOs, Friends of Nature (自然之友) and Nanjing Green Rock (南京绿石), not only launched awareness campaigns but also organized activities. Due to their “close access to the media,”[5] NGOs worked cooperatively with media personalities, which allowed them to better coordinate their campaigns. For example, Wang Shaoming (王少明), a key member of the ‘Friends of Nature,’ provided statistics to reporters and allowed them to follow his travels.[6]

In Nanjing, peaceful but robust protest activities were underway. An activist named Wutong MM called for a movement of tying green ribbons around the trucks. Car posters with the slogan “Love my old capital. Protect the plane trees” (爱我古都, 保卫梧桐), and various catchphrases with shocking photos were spread by other activists, further amplifying the issue. Hundreds of residents responded to an online call to gather in the square of the city’s library, which was generally a peaceful protest despite the arrival of large numbers of public security personnel.[7]

The information flew across the borders and brought in another key actor, Taiwan’s legislator Qiu Yi (邱毅), who was also a member of the KMT’s Central Standing Committee (CSC). Qiu had heard about the tree situation through Weibo, and adopted several means to oppose the plan. He framed protecting plane trees as respecting the collective history of “Chinese compatriots on both sides of the Strait.” Qui also submitted a proposal to the CSC, suggesting that the KMT could express concerns through different channels[8]. He directly phoned Nanjing’s mayor Ji Jianye (季建业) and the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of Nanjing’s municipal government. Overall, KMT’s participation politically amplified the issue as potentially negatively affecting the cross-Strait relations, which was especially concerning in the centennial year of the Xinhai Revolution. 

A Fragmented Government Response 

When planning the project, the government had never imagined mass protests. As an initial response, they tried to frame the loss of the trees as a “necessary cost for city development,” or use technical excuses, like “geological situations” facing the subway construction. [9] The trees were cast as an impediment to improvement of livelihoods and, overall, the city’s future. However, the alternative narratives by traditional media emphasizing the trees’ status of the “city’s symbol,” or a “cultural asset”—and the online catchphrases like “massacre of trees” that linked to the city’s history, were relevant to the targeted audience. [10] They successfully appealed to people’s hearts, even government officials. Although there was sporadic repression in the course of the protests, police behavior was generally calm and moderate because the trees were also important to many officers.

There were also conflicts between governmental authorities, particularly between administrative and construction departments as the units aimed to promote and protect their own interests. For example, the City Administration Bureau (CAB, 城市管理局), who was in charge of street trees, said that it had never aimed to remove the trees, but noted that their only option was “bargaining and negotiating with the construction unit,” according to spokesman, Xu Shaolin (徐少林).[11] The disjointed and stratified structure of governmental offices had challenged policy implementation. For example, the 80% death rate of previously replanted trees had been partially caused by miscommunications of internal divisions. The director of Municipal Bureau of Gardening (园林局) promised all the trees removed would continue to live; however, the Division of Greening Administration (绿化管理处),  was the implementing agency, and was under the CAB due to bureaucratic reform.[12] Responsibilities of tree removal were unclear, and it was uncertain which agency could order the other to act. Hence, the high mortality rate of uprooted trees was partially a result of the fragmented political system.

Several departments were also worried about social stability, including the Public Security Bureau and the top leaders of the city. From February, many large cities had been home to pro-democracy gatherings called the Chinese Jasmine Revolution. The March 19 demonstration at the city’s library was the day before the fifth rally of the Jasmine Movement, and the political and legal system were more concerned about the Jasmine Revolution than tree-protesting civilians—but they could not handle both protests. As a result, a key decision was made: the municipal government stopped the tree removal work on March 18 and announced the decision publicly. The municipal government published an official document announcing all the plans and constructions should take the protection of old trees as a non-negotiable.[13] Furthermore, Nanjing designed a “green assessment” system, the first in China, and the subway line three project was a pilot of the new assessment.[14]

Political Participation in the New Context 

The participation of policy entrepreneurs and citizens successfully changed the infrastructure plan because of the strategic tactics, and because they took advantage of interactions with bureaucratic fragmentation. First, the way that they framed the issue included alternative, recognizable articulations, symbolic representations, and connected the trees to historical, political context.  They were not protesting against the overall subway development, but a specific component of the project.[15] Second, the involvement of social media substantially recruited mass support, and engaged celebrities and politicians across the border, making the shared value and power of the opponents a strong oppositional force. Moreover, the fragmented governmental framework provided space for citizens to exploit and maneuver.[16] They also utilized various institutional means of participation, including petitions, sending letters, calling hotlines, face-to-face meetings, and more.

Social media further increased the number of groups involved in the policy process through several mechanisms. First, it lowered barriers to entry, and energized people’s willingness to participate with new information. Previously, when information was scarce, governments had not had to worry about popular reaction when making decisions.[17] But in an information-saturated environment, ordinary citizens and new access could shift the plans and policies. Celebrities and other citizen leaders became new types of policy entrepreneurs and were difficult for authorities to control. The advantages of internet-based media have increased. Anonymous cyberspace has become a tool utilized to “make coordinated action among dispersed citizens,” and the transmission of visual images and videos is more powerful than traditional catchphrases or slogans[18] when recruiting supporters. Information on social media spreads faster than the government can react and censor. Finally, the international information accessibility has allowed for involvements from outside the region. For example, influential reporters believed the interference of Taiwanese legislator was the key to success.[19]

While the existing fragmented authoritarianism framework still conceptualizes the policy process, the methods of participation are diverse and pluralized. Internet-based participation in China’s policy arena has substantially impacted state-society relations. 


[1] Lampton, David M., “Water: Challenge to a Fragmented Political System.” In Policy Implementation in Post-Mao China, edited by David M. Lampton, pp. 157-89. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987; Lieberthal, Kenneth and Oksenberg, Michel, Policy Making in China: Leaders, Structures, and Processes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988; Lieberthal, Kenneth and Lampton, David M., eds., Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

[2] Mertha, Andrew. “Fragmented Authoritarianism 2.0: Political Pluralization in the Chinese Policy Process.” The China Quarterly, 200 (December 2009). 995-1012. Mertha, Andrew. China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

[3] Xue, Xiaolin薛小琳. “‘Ni likaile Nanjing, congci meiyouren hewo shuohua’- Nanjing wutongshu shijian diaocha” “你离开了南京, 从此没有人和我说话”- 南京梧桐树事件调查 [“You Left Nanjing, Henceforth Nobody Talk with Me”- The Investigation of the Nanjing Plane Trees Incident], Xiaoxiang Chenbao 潇湘晨报, March 29, 2011.

[4] LaFraniere, Sharon. “A Grass-Roots Fight to Save a ‘Supertree’”, the NewYork Times, June 4, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/05/world/asia/05china.html; Xue Xiaolin. “‘Ni likaile Nanjing, congci meiyouren hewo shuohua’- Nanjing wutongshu shijian diaocha”, Xiaoxiang Chenbao, March 29, 2011.

[5] Mertha, Andrew. “Fragmented Authoritarianism 2.0: Political Pluralization in the Chinese Policy Process.” The China Quarterly, 200 (December 2009). 995-1012.

[6] Zheng, Lixiang郑丽香. “Huanjing shijianzhong de gongzhong canyu - Nanjing wutongshu shijian diaocha baogao” 环境事件中的公众参与-南京梧桐树事件调查报告 [The Public Participation in the Environmental Issues – The investigation Report of the Nanjing Plane Trees Incident], Zhongguo renkou ziyuan yu huanjing 中国人口资源与环境, 21 (2011). 407-409.

[7] BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific. “Chinese residents reportedly gather after online call to protest axing of trees.” March 22, 2011.

[8] Such as the ARATS-SEF channel. The Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) is an semi-official organization set up by the People's Republic of China for handling technical or business matters with the Republic of China (Taiwan). The ROC counterpart to ARATS is the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF).

[9] Shi, Yibin石义彬 Lin, Ying林颖 Wu, Dingming吴鼎铭. “Huayu zhuanyi yu yiyi goulian: wangluo jiti xingdong de duoyuan luoji – yi ‘Nanjing wutongshu shijian’ weili” 话语转移与意义勾连: 网络集体行动的多元逻辑-以"南京梧桐树事件”为例 [Language Translation and Meaning Linking: the Pluralized Logics of Internet Group Activities – Take “Nanjing Plane Trees Incident” for Example], Xinwen yu chuanbo yanjiu 新闻与传播研究, 6 (2014). 15-17.

[10] Mertha, Andrew. China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010. p. 15.

[11] Jiang, Fang蒋芳 Cai, Yugao蔡玉高. “Nanjing: wutong wei ditie ranglu fengbo diaocha” 南京: 梧桐为地铁让路风波调查[Nanjing: the Investigation of the Incident that Plane Trees Make Way for the Subway], Xinhuashe 新华社, cited in Wangyixinwen 网易新闻, March 17, 2011. http://news.163.com/11/0318/12/6VE71SDN00014AED.html.

[12] Ju, Jing鞠靖. “Wutong, wutong, Nanjing‘wu’tong? – Ditie yu dashu zhengfeng ‘kan’yu‘yi’ zhengfeng” 梧桐, 梧桐, 南京“无”桐? - 地铁与大树争路“砍”与“移”争锋 [Plane Trees, Plane Trees, Nanjing Has No Plane Trees? – the Competition for Road between Subway and Bid Trees, the Competition between “Felling” and “Moving”], Nanfang zhoumo 南方周末, March 17, 2011.

[13] Nanjing Municipal Government, Jiangsu Province. Municipal Government’s Ideas on Further Enhancing the Protection of City’s Old and Precious Trees and Big Street Trees. 市政府关于进一步加强城市古树名木及行道大树保护的意见, March 17, 2011.

[14] The Press Conference of Reinforcing Greening Protection of Key Projects, Nanjing, Jiangsu. March 22, 2011

[15] Mertha, Andrew. China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010. p. 157.

[16] Ju, Jing鞠靖. “Wutong, wutong, Nanjing‘wu’tong? – Ditie yu dashu zhengfeng ‘kan’yu‘yi’ zhengfeng” 梧桐, 梧桐, 南京“无”桐? - 地铁与大树争路“砍”与“移”争锋 [Plane Trees, Plane Trees, Nanjing Has No Plane Trees? – the Competition for Road between Subway and Bid Trees, the Competition between “Felling” and “Moving”], Nanfang zhoumo 南方周末, March 17, 2011.

[17] Lampton, David M.. Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. p. 97.

[18] Mertha, Andrew. China’s Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010. p. 7.

[19] Zheng, Lixiang郑丽香. “Huanjing shijianzhong de gongzhong canyu - Nanjing wutongshu shijian diaocha baogao” 环境事件中的公众参与-南京梧桐树事件调查报告 [The Public Participation in the Environmental Issues – The investigation Report of the Nanjing Plane Trees Incident], Zhongguo renkou ziyuan yu huanjing 中国人口资源与环境, 21 (2011). 407-409.


Photo Credit: Creative Commons/Gary Todd licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

Comment