Authorities in the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian are holding nearly 30 people following clashes with angry local residents who blockaded a chemical plant accused of causing severe pollution near Zhangzhou city.
The clashes came after riot police moved in to disperse thousands of residents of Xingzai village near Zhangzhou's Gulei township, who had been sitting in outside the paraxylene (PX) plant for several days.
Photos of the scene posted online showed rows of riot police with shields, batons, and helmets facing off with a crowd of local people.
"Some of the people from our village were detained; we can't visit them," a Xingzai resident surnamed Chen told RFA on Monday. "They detained 28 or 29 [Sunday] evening."
He said police had set about beating young and old alike who had gathered in a silent sit-in in protest at the pollution.
"They even beat up old people," Chen said. "It was the riot police and the armed police; they were all beating up the villagers."
He said local journalists hadn't covered the incident.
"The local journalists don't dare to come here," said Chen, adding that his aunt, his brother, and a cousin were among those detained in the clashes.
Threat to health
Several thousand local residents began the sit-in, preventing the Gulei PX plant from operating normally, last Wednesday in protest at the pollution, saying it is compromising their health and that of their families.
A second Xingzai resident surnamed Cheng said more than 2,000 police had staged a sudden attack on protesters in the early hours of Sunday morning.
"We had blockaded them and they couldn't operate, and the riot police and the armed police came," Cheng said. "Some of the elderly were beaten till they lay on the ground."
"They beat up women as well; some had head injuries and arm injuries," he said.
"They detained 28 people [on Sunday] and they released three or four elderly people and a woman at around 5.00 a.m. [on Monday]," Cheng added.
Cheng said production has temporarily halted at the plant, although the blockade has ended.
"They started operation even though we haven't been relocated yet," he said. "They have three production lines planned, and one has already started operation."
"My kid has had three fevers in 10 days, and adults vomit when they smell [the pollution]."
"The factory is very close to our homes; maybe 50 meters away," Cheng said.
Not the first time
A third Xingzai resident who declined to be named said in an interview while in detention that the local government has paid no attention to the health of local people.
"This isn't the first time," the resident said. "Back in 2009, there were clashes—several of them—around the time they were breaking ground on the project."
"This time ... we blockaded it for several days [after] I posted on QQ and organized local residents to do the blockade."
"That's why I was detained," he said.
An officer who answered the phone at the Gulei township police station said they didn't know about the incident.
Meanwhile, repeated calls to the Zhangpu county police department, which administers Gulei, were repeatedly cut off before being answered during office hours on Monday.
Local residents within a 15 kilometer radius have complained of health effects linked to pollution from the plant, sources said.
"The smell from this pollution was disgusting, and I felt dizzy and disoriented and I felt like vomiting," Chen told RFA.
"My son has had a fever of 39-40C for the past 10 days. This has had a huge impact on us," he said. "The smell is really terrible."
"There is a layer of white stuff over every surface in our homes, and it increases overnight after we've gone to bed," Chen said.
An official who answered the phone at the Gulei township government offices said they didn't know about the protest.
"If you have other channels to verify this, then you should use them," the official said.
An official who answered the phone at the Zhangpu county government offices also said they didn't know about the incident.
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.
In April, thousands of protesters converged on government buildings in the southern province of Guangdong during several days of protests against plans to locate a 3.5 billion yuan (U.S.$563 million) PX plant in densely populated Maoming city.
And in May 2013, government plans to produce PX at a petrochemical plant in Anning city, near the provincial capital of Yunnan in southwestern China, brought large crowds onto the streets in protest.
Protesters say they don't fear PX, a carcinogenic petrochemical used in the textiles industry, as much as they fear government inability to safely regulate polluting factories.
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 protests.
China has a comprehensive set of environmental protection legislation, but close ties between business and officials mean that these laws are rarely enforced at a local level, activists and experts say.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.