Residents of a city in China's southern Guangdong province clashed with armed police on Monday during a mass protest at government plans to build a crematorium, protesters and officials said, amid reports of one death and multiple injuries in the violence.
Thousands of people—some of whom skipped work and cut classes—took part in the protest, which began at the weekend over the planned construction of the crematorium in Ligang near Huazhou city, which is administered by Maoming city, even after official media reports said that the project will be shelved.
The opposition to the crematorium came as popular anger with the authorities over a planned petrochemical plant in Maoming had hardly subsided following demonstrations, clashes and riots earlier this month.
On Monday, angry protesters gathered outside municipal government buildings carrying banners, one of which read "Civilized Protest: Crematorium Get the Hell Out of Ligang."
Photos of the protests taken by participants on Saturday showed riot police in full armor lining streets packed with civilians, in what appeared to be a relaxed atmosphere.
But hundreds of armed police arrived at Monday's protest and began using force to break it up, eyewitnesses said.
One protester said a youth of 17 or 18 had died in the clashes, while three other people were still in hospital being treated for their injuries.
"We have confirmed that one person has died and three are injured [in hospital]," said the protester, who asked to remain anonymous. "The person who died was a youth of 17 or 18, and he was taken to hospital, but they couldn't save him."
"We haven't yet been able to confirm his identity," the protester said, adding that the news had sparked further demonstrations in Huazhou.
"We are holding a mass demonstration for justice for the person who died," he said. "They sent in 400-500 police from Maoming who beat people up and detained people."
"They detained about seven or eight people, and about 10 people had back injuries where they were beaten," he added.
However, RFA was unable to confirm his report independently.
Repeated calls to the Huazhou municipal government and the city police departments in Huazhou and Maoming rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
A Ligang resident who gave only his surname Liao said he took part in the protest.
"Some [students] have skipped class, although some of those who are about to graduate stayed in class," Liao said. "None of the businesses in Ligang are open today."
Asked how many people were at the demonstration, he answered: "Tens of thousands."
Police have set up security checkpoints at intersections around Ligang township, and are preventing any vehicles from entering or leaving the area, local sources said.
Government censors have also been busy deleting tweets, forum posts and website articles about the demonstration, although official media carried photographs of streets full of people, some with megaphones, and reported that the government has pledged to shelve the project.
An official who answered the phone at the Huazhou municipal construction and housing bureau confirmed the demonstration had taken place.
"A lot of people came here to city hall today to complain about this," he said, adding that a certain amount of pollution was "inevitable."
The protest entered its fourth day on Monday, according to official media reports, which also said protesters had received a letter from the government on Sunday promising to axe the scheme.
The English-language tabloid Global Times, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said on Sunday that residents had received an official communique promising to "suspend" the planned crematorium.
But the Huazhou construction bureau official said cancellation wasn't an option.
"We are just following orders," the official said. "There's no point in our listening to residents' opinions, because the government won't let us not build it."
He said a location further from the city would lack highway infrastructure and be of less use to the people of Huazhou, or cost the government too much to build.
"If everyone has this reaction, then how is the government ever to get anything done?" the official said.
No meeting with officials
At the scene of the protests, Ligang resident Liao said the government hadn't come out to talk to local residents.
"No one came out or took any notice of us," he said, adding that construction had apparently halted on the crematorium project.
He said the government had promised to demolish any work completed so far within three days. "But they are saying this is only temporary," Liao said.
He said thousands had also turned out in protest over the weekend, from Ligang, Linchen and Guanqiao townships, which he said would be worst affected if the crematorium went ahead.
"We are all very anxious that this will affect our children ... but this was a civilized protest," Liao said.
Earlier this month, police in Maoming detained 18 people after protests by thousands of residents against a planned paraxylene (PX) plant turned violent.
Thousands of protesters converged on Maoming's municipal government buildings, carrying banners and chanting slogans in protest at the government's plans to add a 3.5 billion yuan (U.S. $563 million) PX plant to the city's existing petrochemical operations—a joint venture between state-owned oil giant Sinopec and the local government.
Maoming residents told RFA at the time that they aren't suspicious of PX, a carcinogenic petrochemical used in the textiles industry, so much as the ability of the government to regulate it safely.
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.