Hundreds of protesters in the southern Chinese province of have Guangdong clashed with riot police amid growing public anger over plans to build a paraxylene (PX) petrochemical plant in Maoming city.
As the clashes continued well into the early hours of Monday morning following a protest on Sunday, angry protesters set fire to at least one vehicle and smashed a police sentry post, while police called for reinforcements from nearby cities, residents and protesters said.
"There were more than 1,000 people there, or thereabouts," a protester who gave only his surname Huang told RFA on Monday. "There were still a lot of people there around midnight, and they left at about 3:00 a.m."
Large numbers of protesters were seen running away from the government buildings, where the clashes began, after police began using force and the angry crowd retaliated, an eyewitness who gave only his surname Ma said.
"The police used batons to beat people, and this resulted in clashes," said Ma, who owns a business near the municipal government. "Once a crowd starts fighting, anyone would want to get out of there."
"Some of those police officers were beaten up really badly."
He said the authorities had since cordoned off the whole area.
"The government isn't letting people go over there to take a look now, so I don't know what the situation is now," Ma said.
Photos of the protests showed hundreds of people gathering, holding banners and marching through city streets, while others showed armored vehicles, lines of police amid clouds of white smoke, and a person lying covered in blood on a street.
Most of the photos have since been deleted from popular social media sites like Sina Weibo.
Huang said only around 50 police had been dispatched initially to maintain order, but that the authorities had soon called in reinforcements from nearby Huazhou and Gaozhou.
"Altogether, there were a few hundred police there," he said. "They were firing tear gas, and I was one of those hit by it."
He said rumors were rife that several people had died, but neither he nor RFA was able to verify these reports.
A voluntary police officer who answered the phone at the Maoming municipal government denied that any deaths had occurred.
"Nobody died, but some people were injured," he said, adding that the vehicle that was overturned by protesters had belonged to his department.
But he declined to comment further. "You will have to call the government office; we are just the auxiliary police," he said.
Repeated calls to the Maoming municipal government propaganda department rang unanswered during office hours on Monday, however.
Blamed on 'illegal elements'
The Maoming municipal government blamed the clashes on "a small minority of illegal elements," who had whipped up the public mood into a demonstration against the PX plant.
"We hope that everyone will take it upon themselves to acquire some scientific knowledge about paraxylene ... and not create rumors, spread rumors, or believe the rumors," it said in a statement issued in the early hours of Monday morning.
In a later statement, the government press office accused "a small minority" of protesters of throwing rocks and mineral water bottles at public property.
"The police reacted promptly to control the situation and to punish those responsible," it said. "No one died in the incident."
Huang said local people feared that environmental pollution from the PX plant could damage their health irreparably.
"PX is poisonous and carcinogenic," he said. "We don't want to do that to our health all for a bit of money."
Worsening levels of air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced ordinary Chinese to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protest.
Authorities planning similar plants in a number of major Chinese cities, including Xiamen and Kunming, have met with fierce opposition and shelved the projects in the face of widespread public criticism in recent years.
A second Maoming resident who declined to be named said many local people were angry over a lack of public consultation on the planned project.
He said there are very few channels through which residents could discover information about what municipal authorities are planning.
"The rich would just move elsewhere [to avoid pollution], while those of us without any money would have to stay here and wait for death," the Maoming resident said.
"That makes us feel very uncomfortable."
Asked if the government had informed local residents of the plans, he said: "They have never said anything about it; no-one knew about this. I never saw it on TV."
He said many more people opposed the plan than had shown up to protest.
"Who would dare to go? They had sealed off all the roads, and they weren't letting anyone through," he said.
The Maoming government had planned 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.
Last May, protests against government plans to produce PX at a petrochemical plant in Anning city, near the Yunnan provincial capital in southwestern China, brought large crowds onto the streets in face-masks emblazoned with slogans and printed placards opposing the plan.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.