Authorities in the southern island province of Hainan have surrounded a township with armed police and shuttered schools and businesses after its residents clashed with police over plans to build a coal-fired power plant on their doorstep, residents said Monday.
More than 25 people remain in police custody following clashes in the troubled Yinggehai township in Ledong county last week, during which police used tear gas against protesters fighting against the planned power station since January.
"Right now there are police guarding all of the main streets, and they are stopping any vehicles from driving in the direction of the township government buildings," said a township resident surnamed Liu.
"Local residents are being allowed into the town, but are being prevented from leaving," he said. "All of the shops have been shut since last Thursday, when the armed police arrived."
"The schools are closed, and the students have been told to stay home," Liu said.
He added: "The police are detaining people on the streets. None of the local people dares to come out, or to speak out."
"They have already detained 25 people so far."
Residents said sporadic clashes were still occurring between police and local residents, especially at night, during which police had fired more than 1,000 rounds of tear-gas at the crowds.
Liu said the villagers were still gathering regularly, in spite of the strong security presence.
"They want the authorities to release the detained villagers," he said. "They also want the government to put the power plant somewhere else."
"There have been several physical confrontations with the riot police, who just keep firing tear gas."
"The local people have set up barricades, and they have smashed up official vehicles," he added.
He said there were currently no reliable estimates of the number of people injured in the clashes, however.
Confined to homes
A second Yinggehai resident surnamed Xing confirmed that police had fired large numbers of tear-gas canisters, and that local residents had largely remained at home on Sunday evening.
He said protesters who had been held were currently at the detention center administered by Ledong county, where Yinggehai is located.
"They have been firing tear-gas into the town every night," Xing said. "By Sunday night, there were no more people gathering, but they still fired a few."
"They are trying to terrorize the population, and then they are going to build a polluting [power] project."
"[They] have stopped [resisting] now. They don't dare any more. They can't oppose it any more, because the authorities really don't care whether we live or die," Xing said.
He said the relatives of one youth who had been detained had hired a lawyer to try to get him out of the detention center as soon as possible.
"The atmosphere is incredibly tense here, and there have already been violent clashes where people have been injured," he said. "Soon, we will be fighting for our lives."
An official who answered the phone at the Yinggehai township government on Monday declined to comment, saying she knew nothing of the situation.
'Final location undecided'
Meanwhile, an official at the Ledong county government denied that any Yinggehai protesters had been detained.
"This never happened," the official said. "The final location of the coal-fired power plant hasn't been decided yet, so how could there be protests and detentions as you are describing?"
Earlier this month, the Hainan authorities put on trial an environmental activist and former forestry official for illegally publishing a book that highlighted mass local opposition to a coal-fired power plant on the southern Chinese island's coast.
Liu Futang, 64, who has been detained since July, faced charges of "conducting illegal business," according to his lawyer.
Liu has been a vocal critic of the estimated 1.9 billion yuan (U.S. $301 million) nationally commissioned power station, which was opposed by thousands of Yinggehai residents during a consultation exercise earlier this year.
Wu said that authorities accused Liu of illegal publication of a book about the tensions over the coal plant that he had self-published and distributed for free among friends.
However, his supporters said the charges were part of a bid to silence further opposition to the plant.
Two others were held for assisting Liu with publishing and printing the book.
Jiangsu-based environmental activist Zhang Jianping said the Yinggehai conflict, like many others in China, was linked to economic targets set for local governments.
"Environmental issues are connected to [official] GDP [gross domestic product] targets, and to do with officials wanting to get rich and earn a promotion," Zhang said. GDP is a measure of the value of a country's economic activity.
"This is the same as the [environmental protests] in Qidong, Jiangsu [in July,]" he added, in a reference to angry demonstrations and rioting by the city's residents, who opposed the construction of an industrial waste pipeline.
"Eventually, they always end up using military force to suppress them, and to cover it all up in the name of progress," Zhang said.
"This is system-wide problem [in China]."
Hainan authorities have changed their minds several times about the location of the plant since January, after it met with fierce opposition from residents, who have clashed with police on a number of occasions.
The planned site then moved to Foluo and Huangliu townships in the same county, meeting with similar resistance there earlier this year.
When protests against the plant escalated in Foluo township in April, one website reported residents had stormed a government building and smashed up offices and dormitories.
Residents reported dozens of injuries from beatings and tear gas at the hands of riot police amid clashes sparked by a number of earlier arrests over opposition to the project.
The government said last month that the project, which was initially proposed in 2007 but only approved last November, would go ahead in Yinggehai as previously planned.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.