Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in central China's Hubei province on Monday in protest over a planned chemical plant on their doorstep as authorities called for calm following an earlier environmental protest.
Carrying multi-colored umbrellas, protesters marched down the long, tree-lined boulevards of Hubei's Qianjiang city, carrying banners saying "Protect Qianjiang!" and "Strongly oppose the pesticide factory in Qianjiang," photos of the march sent to RFA by participants showed.
The demonstrators marched to the Qianjiang municipal government offices, where they demanded a meeting with the ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary, officials told the crowd by megaphone in video footage shot by bystanders.
A protester surnamed Wan said opposition to the planned "August" pesticide factory, which would be run by the Russian chemical company JSC August, is widespread in the city.
"They are planning to build a huge pesticides plant right next door to our water treatment facility," Wan said.
"These plans have basically been finalized, and they are at the bidding stage where they are attracting investors," she said. "They have got the equipment together, and construction is about to begin."
"We, the people, do not want this. We strongly oppose it, and we are all up in arms across the city," she said.
Others said Qianjiang has already had to deal with devastating environmental pollution, that has taken its toll on human health, although RFA had no way of verifying their claims.
"We already have very severe chemical pollution here [in Qianjiang]," a resident surnamed Peng told RFA on Monday. "In some villages, there have been as many as 50 or 60 deaths from cancer."
"There is no way for ordinary people to carry on living here," Peng said. "We hate this pollution, so that's why the people are on the streets, demonstrating."
Environmental activist Wu Lijuan was also at the scene.
"The protesters were walking along and chanting 'Give us back our Qianjiang!' and 'Get out of Qianjiang, pesticide factory!'" Wu told RFA.
"When they got to the government offices, they demanded to meet with the party secretary, but not one leader came out to talk to them," he said.
"Then the crowd stormed the government compound and protested in front of the office building, which was guarded by a couple of rows of policemen, at least 100," Wu said.
"Then the deputy mayor came out and appealed for calm, saying that people should behave rationally," he said. "The crowd shouted back:
Sort this out now!'"
Qianjiang authorities later issued a statement saying that the project had been put on hold pending further investigations.
The demonstrations came amid ongoing protests elsewhere in Hubei over a planned waste incinerator plant, in spite of promises by the Xiantao city government that it would be canceled.
Xiantao mayor Zhou Wenxia pledged to halt work on the incinerator, which residents fear will spew carcinogenic dioxins into their air, soil and water, after tens of thousands marched in the city on Sunday.
"We urge the people of the city to be peaceful and rational, and not to believe rumors, not to organize, join in, or be bystanders at illegal gatherings," Mayor Zhou Wenxia said in the video, which was carried by state media.
Protests continued in Monday, however, amid clashes and detentions by police.
"This has been going on for three or four days now," a Xiantao resident surnamed Zhao told RFA. "They have been beating people up, and police have been yelling at and detaining anyone they see shooting video."
"A lot of people were detained; the police vehicles were full of them," she said. "I went to the protests yesterday, and the streets were totally packed with people."
"There were upwards of 10,000 people packed into Xiantao Avenue [outside the city government]," she said.
An official who answered the phone at the Xiantao municipal government on Monday said all queries should be addressed to the mayor.
"I don't really know about this," the employee said. "Didn't the mayor say he was canceling the project?"
"You can always call the mayor's hotline."
Calls to the municipal government switchboard resulted in a busy signal during office hours on Monday, while the mayor's hotline returned a message saying there was a fault on the line.
An official who answered the phone at the city's complaints department accused members of the banned spiritual sect, the Falun Gong, of inciting local people to protest behind the scenes.
"This is being orchestrated by the Falun Gong," the official said. "Somebody's definitely inciting them, anyway."
Asked if he was concerned about pollution, the official replied: "There is pollution everywhere, to some degree. It all depends what the pollution is, and how of it there is."
Asked about reports of police beatings, the official said: "The police won't beat up innocent people; they only beat up people who are causing trouble and can't otherwise be controlled."
A Xiantao official was quoted in state media as saying that the planned plant’s emissions of dioxin would have been in line with European Union standards.
Chemical plants have sparked numerous protests across China in recent years amid growing public anger over pollution of commonly held natural resources and fears for the impact on human health.
Meanwhile, city police warned people against using text messages and the internet to organize "illegal gatherings," Xinhua reported.
China sees tens of thousands of "mass incidents" every year, most of which are sparked by corruption, pollution and illegal land grabs, but very few make it into the country's tightly controlled media.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.