BEIJING -- Authorities in western China ordered organizers of a violent protest against a planned copper alloy plant to surrender or face severe punishment a day after thousands of residents clashed with police in the latest example of Chinese environmental activism.
The Shifang government in Sichuan province warned on its micro-blog Tuesday that anyone who had “enticed, planned and organized the illegal gathering and protest or participated in the vandalism ... would be severely published.”
Protesters began gathering outside a local government building Sunday, a day after a signing ceremony took place to build the $1.6-billion metal factory, according to news reports.
The demonstrations remained peaceful until Monday when police fired tear gas and stun grenades into the crowd, estimated by some to be in the tens of thousands, including children and the elderly.
Protesters responded by lobbing bricks, potted plants and water bottles at the government building.
Authorities said 13 protesters were injured in the melee, though micro-bloggers and Boxun, an overseas Chinese news site, reported there may have been fatalities.
Calls seeking comment from Sichuan Hongda, the plant owner, went unanswered Tuesday.
Earlier Monday, the city government said it would suspend the project and seek counsel from local residents on how to proceed. It also blamed the Dalai Lama and the banned spiritual group Falun Gong for instigating the unrest.
“Ordinary people basically worried that the Hongda program would pollute their environment,” Chen Lin, Shifang’s vice director of propaganda and de facto spokesman, said in a brief phone interview Tuesday.
“They first started something online, then they put it into practice,” Chen said. “A lot of people were simply watching in the beginning, but then some extreme people were involved and then created physical conflicts. We understand their requests and we stopped the program.”
Chen referred questions about fatalities to the city government’s written statement Tuesday, which said nobody had died and all the injured had been treated.
News and pictures of the Shifang incident had yet to be banned by censors Tuesday afternoon -- a curious decision given the sensitivity of social unrest in China. Many micro-bloggers expressed outrage over treatment of the demonstrators. Photographs of bloodied residents were passed around online with the heading: “Today, we are all Shifang people.”
Other pictures posted on blogs and forums show authorities beating residents with batons, police vehicles overturned and protesters carrying signs and T-shirts reading: “Get out of Shifang Hongda.”
“They were kicking and using their batons,” said a photo studio clerk who watched the clashes from across the street huddled with weeping colleagues. “They didn’t care who they were beating.”
The witness, who only gave her surname, Li, for fear of official retribution, said police were called in from neighboring cities to reinforce the local authorities. She said text messaging no longer worked in the city, which was under police lockdown Tuesday.
“I understand why ordinary people protested,” Li said. “We live here, of course we can’t accept our environment to be polluted. I know such pollution is already happening in many other places. That’s why we reacted this way, that’s why we didn’t take it easily. But the government should be more rational. They shouldn’t start beating up the mass public.”
Local residents had been concerned about the copper plant long before the protests, but authorities ignored the complaints, according to the state-run Global Times.
The newspaper said warnings passed around online described the potential pollution caused by the refinery as more severe than the radiation damage released by the earthquake-hobbled nuclear plants in Japan.
Petitions circulated among protesters also described the plant as carcinogenic and Shifang as suffering from higher rates of cancer than neighboring communities, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported.
It’s unclear if the project violates any laws.
Chinese NIMBYism has been on the rise in recent years as local residents have become empowered by social media and home ownership during the largest property boom in the nation’s history.
Tax-starved local governments, especially those in backwaters like Shifang, are drawn to large industrial projects because of the revenue and employment they generate. Local officials are also judged more by how much economic growth they deliver than their record on environmental protection.
Last year, thousands of protesters in the well-to-do coastal city of Dalian successfully pressured the local government into shuttering a chemical plant, though it was reportedly reopened months later.
More recently, residents of Shengli, a riverside village in central Anhui province, have begun protesting a planned nuclear power plant. Villagers in southern Shantou in Guangdong province have also been demonstrating against land seizures and a paper factory polluting water in the region.
-- David Pierson
Photo: An image released by rights watchdog China Human Rights Defenders purportedly showing Chinese riot police on guard along a street in Shifang. Credit: China Human Rights Defenders / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images