Authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo are holding more than 50 people under criminal detention, as protests against the expansion of a petrochemical plant subsided amid renewed pledges from the government that it wouldn't go ahead, residents said on Tuesday.
City officials said 51 people were detained by police, mostly in connection with attacks—or the prevention of attacks—on police officers and damage to police vehicles during protests in Zhenhai township, the planned location of the paraxylene (PX) plant.
Of the 51 people detained, 13 had already been placed under criminal detention, a city spokesman told a news conference late on Monday.
Some protesters were also briefly held for "education" after they refused to obey orders to leave Ningbo's Tianyi Square during protests there on Saturday, but were subsequently released, he said.
Residents said the protests appeared to have ended for the time being.
"It's pretty quiet here today, and there hasn't been much activity on Weibo," said a resident of Zhenhai surnamed Cai.
A second resident, who declined to be named, said the city had "stabilized."
"It was reported [that the project would be canceled] on the Ningbo television news program this afternoon at 2:00 p.m.," she said. "We will believe the leaders, and we will see what happens."
"Even if we don't believe them, we can't go on like this every day."
Downstream petrochemical giant Sinopec had planned to invest U.S. $8.9 billion in expanding its plant in Ningbo, which already produces 500,000 tons of PX a year.
The proposed expansion would have increased oil-refining capacity by 15 million metric tons and annual ethylene production capacity by 1.2 million tons, in a district where residents already complain of acrid-smelling air from existing plants.
Ningbo's vice-mayor Chen Zhongchao told the news conference on Monday that the government had planned to conduct an environmental impact assessment, survey public opinion and hold a public hearing on the project, but that the public had "expressed its concerns before these procedures could be implemented," the official China Daily newspaper reported.
Now, the government says that preliminary work on the Sinopec project has been suspended pending "further scientific evaluation," the paper said.
Ningbo-based democracy activist Xu Xionglong said he believed that most of those detained had been involved in smashing property.
"Things got pretty riotous in Zhenhai these past few days," Xu said. "Some people were smashing police vehicles and attacking police stations."
"I'm guessing that some of those people who have been detained won't be getting out any time soon."
Xu said he had been at the demonstrations in Ningbo throughout the week against the plant, which locals fear will poison the environment and affect their health.
"The people who were detained in Ningbo were held awhile, given a lecture, made to sign a guarantee of good behavior and released," he said.
Protests against the PX plant entered a third day on Monday, with many still skeptical of promises by local officials that work on the U.S. $8.9 billion project would halt.
Tens of thousands of city residents took to the streets over the weekend, sparking clashes with police as the week-long environmental protest against the plant expansion reached its peak.
Unconfirmed online reports said the Ningbo government only agreed to back down on the project following intervention from China's outgoing premier Wen Jiabao, who was said to be staying at the Zhaobao Hotel in the city.
However, an employee who answered the phone at the hotel denied Wen had stayed there.
"No, he didn't come here," she said, while Xu quoted police sources as saying they had never received notification of a visit by Wen.
News of the Ningbo protests was censored on China's popular Sina Weibo microblogging service, according to Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan.
"They told me the Internet surveillance departments were censoring it," Liu said after he inquired about his own tweet featuring photos of the Ningbo protests, which was deleted.
"I think this is ridiculous," he said. "It's a covert form of news censorship."
Meanwhile, reports emerged in the Hong Kong media that PX production had increased at an existing plant in the northeastern port city of Dalian, in spite of pledges by the local government to remove the plant following protests by more than 10,000 people in August 2011.
Production at the Dalian plant had increased from 700,000 metric tons annually, to 1.4 million metric tons, the Eastern Daily News reported.
The article was unavailable on the popular Chinese Internet search engine Sohu on Tuesday, however.
An employee who answered the phone at the Dalian Fujia Dahua Petrochemical Co. denied the report.
"There's no PX here; this is the wrong number," the employee said. "I don't know about this."
An official who answered the phone at the Dalian municipal environmental protection bureau declined to comment on the report.
"On this matter, you should go through the correct official channels," the official said. "We don't really understand the situation with them over there."
Reported by Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Fang Yuan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.