Authorities in the northern Chinese province of Hebei sent in more than 1,000 riot police who used pepper spray and batons against demonstrators on Thursday, in a bid to end days of angry protests by local people over a leak at a chemical plant that released toxic gases into the air.
Police in full riot gear moved in to disperse protests sparked by an Apr. 29 leak from the Hebei Xingfei Chemical Co. factory in Dongwang township, near Hebei's Xingtai city, which the government had promised to investigate.
Local residents had been blockading the factory for 10 days, preventing any vehicles from getting in or out, and demanding that production be halted pending an inquiry.
Video of the crackdown sent by Dongwang residents showed police warning the crowd: "All those gathered here, please note that your behavior has violated national law. You now have three minutes to leave. If you do not, police will use force to disperse you."
Police then pushed forwards with shields and batons, and began attacking people in the crowd, pushing them to the edge of the street amid boos and shouts of "The police are attacking us! Don't hit us!
Don't hit us!" from protesters.
"They're using force to clear the area!" shouted one woman, weeping as she fled the melee.
Eyewitnesses said the crackdown lasted some two hours, with police repeatedly using force against unarmed protesters.
"The police were using pepper spray and beating people with batons, and detaining them," a local resident surnamed Feng told RFA. "This went on for a couple of hours, as they tried to drive the protesters away, or drag them away into detention."
"Nobody has counted how many people were detained, but there are definitely some local residents who haven't been released yet," he said. "The police also seized all of our donations, and after that, a few trucks came in and out of the chemical factory, carrying goods.”
"The road we were blocking is the main road running through the chemical industrial park, so all of the chemical plants shut down after that," Feng said. "I think that the Sanchuan Chemical Co. factory has already started back in production as of today."
"They will be starting up again immediately, now that the police have cleared the blockade," he said. "All of the roads are now clear."
‘They don’t do anything’
Another protester who gave only the nickname Xiao Ming said local people had taken the action out of fear about the impact of such leaks on their long-term health.
"People have been gathering outside the chemical factory for some time, preventing the factories from operating," Xiao Ming said. "The county government and the [Xingtai] city government all know about this, but they don't do anything."
"Now the government has used force to clear the area, and chased everyone away. I don't know what they'll do to address the issue," he said.
Calls to the Dongwang township government offices rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
The Xingtai municipal police department said via its official social media account: "Some villagers were using pollution as an excuse to gather in the chemical industrial park for several days, surrounding local enterprises and leading to the plants being forced to store large amounts of toxic, explosive goods."
"This caused serious disruption to public safety, and severe disturbance of public order," the police tweet said.
But local residents have told RFA that the authorities are more concerned with profit than with the well-being of local people, and have allowed dozens of chemical plants to start operating in the area.
They have repeatedly complained that pollution from the nearby plants smelled "awful" and had also affected local people's mental health.
An official circular issued by the Ningjin county government, which administers Dongwang township, said that a fire in a pipeline carrying the industrial disinfectant trichloroisocyanuric acid, "resulted in the emission of irritating gas that was blown to a few villages downwind, and causing vomiting, coughing and other difficulties."
Issued shortly after the leak, the circular said county government was extremely concerned about the incident and would carry out "educational work" with local people.
The government had also instructed county-level and municipal environmental protection bureaus to investigate nearby factories.
Activists say China has an exemplary set of environmental protection laws, but that environmental officials lack the power to impose it on powerful vested interests at the local level.
Reported by Ding Wenqi for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.