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Protest against maglev train in Shanghai forces government acknowledgement

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Posted: January 14, 2008 6:53 p.m.
Updated: January 29, 2008 5:00 a.m.
    SHANGHAI, China — Protests by Shanghai residents angry over the proposed extension of a high-tech train line forced the government Monday to acknowledge widespread public concern, in the latest standoff between China’s communist authorities and middle-class urban Chinese.
    Hundreds of people defied bans on public demonstrations on Saturday and Sunday over the potential health risks of the showcase project. The crowds staged what they called ‘‘strolls’’ through a busy square and at a popular shopping street to protest extending the magnetic levitation train line.
    ‘‘Oppose the maglev! Resist radiation! Save the children!’’ some in the crowd shouted, according to mobile phone videos posted on Chinese web sites and YouTube.
    Though Shanghai authorities did not directly comment on the demonstrations, a statement the city government posted Monday on the Environment Bureau’s Web site said it was gathering opinions on the extension and taking public concerns ‘‘very seriously.’’
    The government spokesman’s office struck a solicitous tone but also warned people against further protests.
    ‘‘City planning and environmental departments are very cautious and take very seriously these concerns,’’ the statement said, urging the public not to ‘‘disrupt social stability.’’
    It was the second time in two years that the high-profile, costly German-made maglev has generated protests in Shanghai, China’s commercial capital. And the government’s response underscores how delicately authorities must tread in the face of Chinese who want a say in protecting the homes, jobs and other goods their rising living standards have afforded.
    In June, thousands of protesters massed on the streets of another prosperous Chinese port city, Xiamen, forcing the government to delay construction of a $1.4 billion chemical plant. Like the Shanghai protesters this weekend, the Xiamen demonstrators organized by mobile phone text messages and put photos and video of the marches on the Internet.
    ‘‘Before the Xiamen case, the general pattern was always that the big factory, or big road or big bridge would crush everything,’’ said Ding Xueliang, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beijing.
    ‘‘Now, Shanghai residents have more confidence that their voices will be heard,’’ he said.
    Shanghai has the world’s only commercially operating maglev, which uses powerful magnets to suspend the train above a track and propel it at high speeds of up to 280 mph. But the showcase project has struggled to prove its viability.
    Opened in 2004, the line currently runs from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport 20 miles to a nondescript, out-of-the-way suburban subway stop. Plans to extend the line last year were shelved after residents mounted a letter-writing campaign and hung banners in opposition.
    Revised plans to take the train line through different neighborhoods 18 miles to the Hongqiao airport in Shanghai’s western suburbs prompted the weekend protests.
    Among the protesters were those who said their homes would be affected by supposed radiation from the maglev. It is unclear if this concern has any validity.
    ‘‘We feel like we’d be living beside a big microwave oven,’’ said a resident surnamed Tao whose apartment is 100 yards from the planned route.
    ‘‘My wife and I are delaying our plans for having a child until after this problem is resolved,’’ said Tao, who would not give his full name for fear of retaliation by authorities.
    Several witnesses said some protesters were taken away by police on public buses. Government officials would not comment. Tao and others played down any confrontation.
    ‘‘We tried our best to keep social order but we hope the government can hear our voices,’’ said another resident, who would only give her surname, Song.

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