Police stood guard over hundreds of people in a tense Chinese city yesterday, a day after the authorities bowed to violent protests and canceled plans to build a controversial metals factory.
The protests in Shifang City highlighted and fueled concerns around China over the impact of rampant economic development on the environment, with millions of Chinese closely following developments on the Internet.
Shifang authorities announced on Tuesday night, after two days of clashes during which riot police used tear gas to quell thousands of protesters, that they would not build the multi-million US dollar factory.
“Shifang from this day forward will not build this project,” Shifang Community Party chief Li Chengjing (李成精) said in a statement.
Li insisted the copper factory would have brought Shifang jobs and economic benefits, but acknowledged the strong public opposition and his government’s failure to fully explain its benefits.
Two people were killed in the protests, according to rights watchdog Chinese Human Rights Defenders, although the government denied anyone had died.
The decision, which came a day after the government said that it would only suspend construction, appeared a rare win for grassroots environmental activism in China.
Incidents similar to the one in Shifang are reported regularly around China, many over environmental concerns that locals say are linked to corruption, but authorities typically quash the protests and push ahead with the projects.
Some Shifang residents welcomed the government statement, but others expressed caution that the announcement was not genuine and only aimed at ending the protests.
“I think ... that because there are too many mass protests, they just want to use this method [promising to not build] to get rid of the crowds,” said one resident, who asked not to be identified. “I personally think [the factory will be built], but I don’t know for sure.”
However, another resident expressed relief and said she believed the government.
“We are very happy to hear the announcement that they will not build the plant any more,” she said.
In a sign of lingering tensions, a few hundred people continued yesterday to gather around the main Shifang government office where the worst of the protests occurred.
The people were not chanting, holding banners or protesting in other visible forms, but a heavy police presence stood guard around them.
Elsewhere around the city of about 200,000 people, many police vehicles patrolled the streets, although there were no signs of the riot police that had sought to quell the protests on Monday and Tuesday.
Thousands of people gathered on Tuesday night to demand the release of students who protested, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper in Beijing.
In another apparent win for the protesters, the Shifang government said it released 21 of 27 people initially detained before midnight on Tuesday.
However, six remained in detention and would likely face charges, the government said.
Shifang police had warned at the height of the protests that all those involved would be punished.
“Anyone who has incited, planned or organized illegal gatherings, protest marches or demonstrations or those who have engaged in smashing and looting ... will be punished severely,” the police said in a statement on Monday.