Updated at 11:00 a.m. ET on 2014-04-04
Thousands of protesters converged on government buildings in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong as protests against a planned petrochemical plant entered a fifth day on Thursday, residents said.
Protesters gathered outside the offices of the Maoming municipal government as the authorities held a news conference saying they had detained 18 people during the clashes.
"I am here at the scene right now, and there are probably upwards of 20,000 people here [outside the government buildings in Maoming]," a protester and Maoming resident surnamed Chen told RFA's Mandarin Service.
"The news conference is taking place inside the municipal committee [of the ruling Chinese Communist Party]," he said.
He said the press conference had taken place "behind closed doors."
"They have set up a lot of security checkpoints, and they're not letting anyone in," Chen said. "There are a lot of armed police here, the most I've seen so far, and they are lining the whole boulevard."
An employee at a nearby business said protesters had begun pouring towards the grassy area outside the government buildings from around 2:00 p.m. local time, and the entire area was being patrolled by a strong armed police presence.
"There were so many people and vehicles outside, and a large crowd outside the city government," the employee said.
"Everywhere is packed with vehicles and people."
Asked if there were 1,000 people gathered, the employee replied: "Definitely much more than that."
Protesters carried banners and chanted 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 in interviews earlier this week 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.
Maoming police have detained 18 people after protests turned violent on Sunday, city officials told the news conference.
The suspects were accused of "assembling a crowd to disturb public order" and "causing trouble," according to a transcript released by the official party newspaper, the People's Daily.
But the statement denied unconfirmed reports from protesters that some deaths had occurred.
According to Maoming deputy mayor Liang Luoyue, some "hooligans" took advantage of the situation in the protest, overturning a private vehicle, attacking the party offices with stones and glass bottles, and smashing shops.
"Such acts severely violated the state law, badly disrupted social order and affected the normal work and living of local residents," Liang said.
Deputy police chief Zhou Peizhou said police did not beat anyone to death but that they could have accidentally hurt bystanders in dispersing the crowds.
About 12 people who demonstrated in the provincial capital Guangzhou in support of Maoming residents on Tuesday were seized by police and were being held at the city’s Hongqiao Police Station, the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said in an emailed statement on Thursday.
CHRD said there were unverified reports that several people were killed and scores injured in clashes between police and protesters after Sunday's demonstration in Maoming.
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.
China has a comprehensive set of environmental protection legislation, but close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level, activists and experts say.
Chinese authorities have tried to locate PX facilities in a number of major Chinese cities in recent years, including Dalian and Xiamen, only to meet with vocal public opposition each time.
Last May, 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 protest.
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.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted CHRD’s statement.