Thousands Clash With Police in S. China

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

BEIJING, March 3 -- Violent protests erupted in several southern Chinese fishing towns after residents heard that a chemical factory rejected as environmentally dangerous by the nearby city of Xiamen would be built in their area instead, witnesses and other residents said Monday.

The protesters, who began their uprising peacefully Thursday, clashed repeatedly with baton-wielding police Friday and Saturday in several towns on the Gulei Peninsula, about 50 miles southwest of Xiamen on the Taiwan Strait, they said. A dozen people were injured and carried away for treatment in local hospitals, and about 15 were arrested, according to demonstrators and their family members.

"I have never seen anything like that before," said a 19-year-old secondary school student who watched one of the clashes unfold. "As soon as I saw all the injured people, I left," he added, identifying himself only as Chen.

The protests continued Sunday and Monday but without violence, local residents said by telephone. By Monday, the local government sent officials circulating through the area with loudspeakers to deny the reports that the chemical factory was about to be built near their balmy seaside communities.

"The program has not been decided on yet," Huang Xiaowen of the Dongshan County Propaganda Department added in a telephone interview. "This cannot be decided by our county. It is the central government's duty to decide on this."

Construction of the $1.4 billion factory, planned by Tenglong Aromatic PX (Xiamen), began last year on a 300-acre tract on Haicang, an industrial and residential island just off Xiamen. But work was halted in June after a massive cellphone message campaign by environmentalists who invoked the city's reputation for sweet air and beautiful surroundings.

Their alarms generated several days of demonstrations in Xiamen streets that were widely reported in China and eventually caught the eye of officials in Beijing. Since then, the entire project has been suspended pending an environmental review by the central government under Premier Wen Jiabao.

The halt was hailed by protesters in Xiamen and elsewhere as a rare victory of public opinion over Communist Party bureaucrats for whom economic development normally is the top priority.

Huang Xueqiong, a 30-year-old Dongshan County businesswoman, said people in towns along the peninsula had heard rumors the factory was coming to their area but had not paid much attention. Then local environmental activists started handing out fliers door-to-door, she said, and public concern swelled. Real estate prices began to drop, and people began talking about danger to their children, she said.

Protesters gathered Thursday morning and staged a sit-in to block traffic on a main Dongshan County road. The protest had attracted about 10,000 people by nightfall, she added. At that point, county propaganda officials appeared on local television to assure the public that a chemical factory would not pose a danger and would boost the local economy.

"This really made people angry," she said.

The protests resumed Friday morning with an approximately equal number of demonstrators. Police were dispatched to keep order. A young woman who was part of the protest got into a shouting match with a local official, who ended up slapping her in the face, according to residents quoting witnesses.

Enraged, the protesters moved their demonstration to a local police station, demanding an apology. A half-dozen police cars and motorcycles were pummeled with stones, the residents said.

As the protest continued Saturday, a woman fainted and rumors quickly spread that she had died, residents said. Protesters returned to the police compound and lobbed stones at the buildings, smashing windows and damaging more cars. People's Armed Police officers, swinging batons, struggled to contain the outburst, they said.

Huang, the propaganda official, said calm had returned to the area by Monday evening. He called the report of a woman dying untrue and sought to play down the scope of the protests, adding that if the plant did come to the area it would bring large economic benefits.

"It is not strange that people protested to protect their interests," he added. "They have a right to express their demands and desires."

Researcher Li Jie contributed to this report.

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