Chinese villagers clash with police in protests over environmental issues

An environmental protest in a small fishing town in southern China has turned into a protracted, violent nine-day clash between villagers and police, with stones thrown, tear gas deployed, and dozens injured and arrested, witnesses said Monday.

The confrontation is just the latest in recent years, as citizens have become increasingly incensed at the environmental toll brought on by three decades of unbridled and often rapacious economic and industrial growth.

In recent months, at least two other large-scale environmental protests have forced local authorities to back down and, at least temporarily, suspend planned projects. But as the country’s ruling Communist Party approaches a sensitive and rare transition of leadership, officials are increasingly worried about such mass demonstrations.

The most recent incident began with a plan by local officials to build a coal-fueled power plant and a harbor for receiving the shipped coal in the village of Yinggehai, on Hainan island at the southern tip of China.

Fearing that such a plant could devastate the environment, residents, who mostly depend on fishing as their livelihood, began to protest the project Oct. 13. On that first day, it was mostly older women demonstrating in front of the local government’s fishery department, according to one witness, who owns a fishing business and like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of an ongoing crackdown by authorities. Town officials did not return calls seeking comment.

The women decided to confiscate as evidence of local officials’ lies and ill intent a sign for the harbor project that referred to it as a “fishing harbor” rather than a “coal-shipping harbor,” said the business owner.

When armed police tried to snatch back the sign, one of the women was hurt, which touched off widespread anger among the village’s men. That night, men turned out by the thousands and began throwing stones and bricks at police, who, in return, fired tear gas.

For days afterward, the protest followed a pattern of women protesting by day in front of the armed police and men clashing with authorities at night, when it is more difficult to photograph and identify violent protesters.

The Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Hong Kong, said in a statement that it estimates more than 10,000 villagers and 3,000 armed police have been involved in the clashes, with more than 100 injured and 50 arrested.

The bulk of the arrests were made Sunday after authorities, in an attempt to stop the protests, according to one villager, announced on television a long list of citizens wanted by police. A second most-wanted list has been announced, and it seemed to be working Monday.

“Almost every night, you could hear the glass being broken, the shouting and fighting, said the villager. “But since yesterday, the town has been quiet.”

Liu Liu contributed to this report.

William Wan is the Post's roving national correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the paper’s religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent and for three years as the Post’s China correspondent in Beijing.

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