HONG KONG--A signature campaign that recently brought thousands of residents in the northern Chinese city of Datong onto the city's streets was an "illegal assembly," police said.
"Local citizens held an event to sign a petition against the rise in heating costs," an officer who answered the phone at the Datong municipal police department said.
Local residents said the downtown area around the snow-laden mining town's central Red Flag Square was cordoned off on Nov. 10 by police, who arrived in buses that lined the main avenues.
"It's not that they are not allowed to sign, but in such large numbers they constituted an illegal assembly," the officer said.
"The police intervene where there are large crowds in order to prevent mass incidents from escalating into other actions."
The signature campaign was in response to a move by city authorities, who have a monopoly on heating service provision, to put up the cost of centrally heating a residential apartment from 3.18 yuan per square meter to 4.8 yuan per square meter, starting in November.
"That's a rise of nearly 50 percent, and yet we have had no rise in salary to match," a Datong resident surnamed Zhang said.
"We all feel quite hopeless, and a lot of people think that this is unreasonable," she said.
Residents 'can't cope'
Another resident who attended the event, surnamed Zhao, agreed.
"The main reason is that people's incomes are still pretty low in Datong, but now heating costs have gone up, and people can't cope with it all at once," she said.
"There were a lot of people when I went over there, and the area had already been cordoned off by police. They wouldn't let anyone onto the square. There were a lot of police there, all the way from the watchtower to the China Telecom Plaza."
"They weren't letting any traffic through either. There were a lot of people. We aren't sure of the exact numbers," Zhao said.
Another resident, surnamed Deng, said that the authorities are blaming the rise in heating costs on rising prices of coal, electricity, and water, but that local residents say the lack of competition in the sector means that authorities should shoulder the burden.
"There is a monopoly on heating service providers, and people have no choice in the matter," he said.
"The price of coal has begun to fall since its rise last year, so why are heating costs rising? The government should take steps to address this through an increase in subsidies."
An official who answered the phone at the Datong municipal government said that no one had been at work during Sunday's protests, and that he couldn't comment on events.
Calls to the central heating service company went unanswered during office hours Monday.
Previous mass signature events in Datong have been held in support of government goals and policies, including one to welcome the 2008 Beijing Olympics and one in support of the city's Party secretary.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Ding Xiao and in Cantonese by Fung Yat-yiu. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.