Clashes between police and protesters angry over plans to build a paraxylene (PX) plant in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong continued for a third day into the early hours of Wednesday morning, local residents said.
The clashes broke out after several hundred residents of Guangdong's Maoming city took their protests to the provincial capital Guangzhou, prompting further clashes with police, who detained nine demonstrators, according to a participant surnamed Chen.
The demonstrators had gathered near the Maoming sports stadium after returning from Guangzhou and smashed up a police sentry box, sparking a response from armed riot police, who fired tear gas at protesters and beat them with batons, Chen said.
"A whole bunch of riot police—20 or more—would grab one of the demonstrators and surround them so people looking in from the outside couldn't see, and all you would see would be 10 or 20 batons frantically pounding into their center," he told RFA on Wednesday.
"Even when the person stopped moving, they carried on beating them, and then they would stay huddled there so that no one could take photos, and a few of them would carry the person away," he said.
"I saw them use this tactic to beat people up several times, because I was quite near the front."
Chen said he had heard reports of "at least two" deaths from the beatings, but that relatives were too frightened to speak out.
"I got in touch with one family [of the deceased] but they wouldn't come out publicly," he said. "As far as I know, probably two people died."
Chen said the authorities had thrown a tight security cordon around Maoming since thousands turned out in a demonstration on Sunday that later turned violent.
"They have locked down this city and shut out media from elsewhere in China," he said. "They won't publish the true number of dead and injured."
"There is no trust in the government," Chen said.
Another local resident surnamed Huang said no trains or long-distance buses were running in or out of Maoming on Wednesday.
"I also heard that the only expressway linked to Maoming has been sealed off by the government," she said.
"Trains have stopped running, and there are tanks next to the railway station," Huang said.
Chen said Maoming residents weren't afraid of PX, a carcinogenic petrochemical used in the textiles industry, so much as the ability of the government to regulate it safely.
"Plenty of other countries have PX plants, some of them quite close to cities, but the milk in those countries doesn't kill anyone, so why does it kill people in China?" Chen asked, referring to the 2008 melamine-tainted infant formula scandal that killed at least six infants and sickened thousands.
"The issue is about public confidence in the government and about oversight [of the government]," he said.
Call for surrender
The Maoming police department on Tuesday issued a statement calling on protesters to turn themselves in.
"Some people violated the law when they damaged public facilities and disturbed social order," said the statement. "We urge all lawbreakers to surrender themselves."
A Maoming-based student surnamed Liang said the government had mishandled 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.
"The way we residents see it, of course we're going to be unhappy," Liang said. "This has all been badly handled."
In a move that further fueled public anger on Tuesday, the authorities began circulating an "approval letter" in local government departments, businesses and educational institutions, the tabloid Global Times, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reported.
Liang said authorities at his school had put pressure on students to sign the document agreeing to the PX facility, but that many had refused.
Even those who had been forced to sign had since become angry at the school's tactics, Liang said.
Support from delegates
The Maoming government said in a statement late Monday that it would shelve the PX project if "a majority" of local residents were against it.
"Rumors have affected people's lives and many demand a firm reaction to maintain stability," it said in a later statement on Tuesday. "People should express their opinions in accordance with the law."
Maoming residents appeared to have won cautious support from local delegates to a government advisory body, according to the Global Times, which cited comments from Han Zhipeng, a delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Guangzhou.
"Han [said] Maoming was no longer suitable for a PX project due to its notorious management on pollution control of local enterprise and long-existing corruption issues, even though the city is known for its petrochemical industry," the paper said.
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 laws, but close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level, activists and experts say.
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.