Thousands in China protest chemical factory expansion

AP, BEIJING

Sun, Oct 28, 2012 - Page 1

Thousands of people in an eastern Chinese city clashed with police while protesting against the proposed expansion of a petrochemical factory that they say would spew pollution and damage public health, townspeople said yesterday.

Pollution has become a major source of unrest in China, as members of the rising middle class become more outspoken against environmentally risky projects in their backyards.

The Zhenhai District Government in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, said in a statement yesterday that “a few” people disrupted public order by staging sit-ins, unfurling banners, distributing fliers and obstructing roads. It said the proposed project was under review.

Zhenhai police said protesters threw rocks and bricks at officers on Friday and that police dispersed illegal gatherings to restore the flow of traffic.

Residents, however, said the protests involved thousands of people and turned violent after authorities used tear gas to dispel the crowds and arrested participants.

“It started with a peaceful petition, but turned into a citywide riot,” said a local resident who gave only his family name, Ren (任), because he had come under police watch.

He said he was called in by police over his frequent online postings about the project.

Ren said the protest intensified on Friday, when young residents returned home for the weekend. He said between 4,000 and 5,000 people blocked major road entrances to the district and that the public grew angry when police arrested three college students and used tear gas on the crowds.

Thousands of protesters stormed a local police station, where they demanded the release of the students and a dialogue with district officials. Ren said the protesters also went to a traffic police compound, where they overturned police vehicles.

He said riot police moved in and formed a shield to guard the traffic police compound and that protesters threw rocks and water bottles at the riot police.

Later on Friday night, police began beating protesters and passers-by with batons, Ren said.

Yesterday, protesters gathered in a large public square in Ningbo and shouted slogans against the project, Ren said. Many were arrested, he said.

Photographs posted online showed demonstrators clashing with police and holding up signs demanding that the project be halted.

Searches for phrases including Zhenhai and Zhenhai chemical plant were blocked yesterday on the microblogging site Sina Weibo (新浪微博).

The state-run Ningbo Daily newspaper echoed the district government’s statement in an online editorial yesterday, reminding the public that the expansion project remains under evaluation and saying there are ample opportunities — including public hearings — for the public to voice opinions. It also condemned any illegal behavior.

Residents of several Chinese cities have taken to the streets this year to protest against projects, including a coal-fired power plant in southern China, a waste-water pipeline in eastern China and a copper plant in west-central China.

Such protests reflect increasing tensions between a government that wants to encourage economic growth while maintaining social stability and a public worried about health consequences.