Censors in Beijing have blocked information about a protest movement against government plans to produce paraxylene (PX) at a petrochemical plant in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, as a top city official took to social media on Friday, drawing further ire.
The Central Propaganda Department of the ruling Chinese Communist Party has banned news organizations from covering Thursday's demonstrations, which saw hundreds of people take to the streets of the provincial capital Kunming in protest at the plan.
"Without exception, do not republish, report, or comment on the assembly of the masses in Kunming to protest against the planned construction of a PetroChina oil refinery," the department said in a directive published by the China Digital Times (CDT), which monitors censorship instructions to Chinese media.
Similar bans were in place for websites and social media platforms, CDT said.
"All websites are asked to remove text, images, and video related to the protest of over 1,000 people in Kunming city center against the Anning PX construction plan," it quoted the State Internet Information Office as saying in a directive.
"Interactive platforms must strictly monitor activity," it said.
Comments still visible
In spite of the ban, some comments about the petrochemical plant and the protests were still visible on the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo on Friday, many of them linked to the opening of a new microblog account by Kunming mayor Li Wenrong.
China National Petroleum Corp (PetroChina), the country's largest oil and gas producer and supplier, announced in February that the refinery project at Anning, just outside Kunming, was approved by the top state planning body in Beijing.
Li has already promised that the refinery won't go ahead, if "most of our citizens say no to it," the official Xinhua news agency said.
But popular feeling was still apparently strong on China's Twitter-like services, the day after the protest.
"Protect the environment, resist the PX plant!" wrote user @meng_zhao. "Please be prudent, on behalf of our children and grandchildren."
And user @moshangzidai commented on Li's tweet: "First, tell us clearly what is going on with the PX project."
According to a tweet from Weibo user @ZHy03-Cross, the authorities in Kunming have stepped up security measures at the city's universities and colleges in the wake of the protests.
"No one is allowed to take a day off for the next three days, and every day they have to sign in, subject to spot checks by the municipal education committee," the user wrote.
"Anyone who doesn't show up will be immediately disciplined, and a black mark will remain on their record for life," said the post, which also forwarded the inaugural tweet from the account @kunminshizhang (Kunming mayor).
While no violence was reported, online photos of the protests showed a heavy police presence in downtown Kunming, with police struggling to control the crowd in some places.
However, a comment on the mayor's first post by user @aiguodexiaomao on Friday accused the government of dealing violently with protesters, some of whom had begun a second day of protest in the Wuhuashan district of the city.
"The government is sending armed police in full military gear with iron batons to surround the crowds," the user wrote. "Anyone who opens their mouth or raises a banner is immediately pulled onto a waiting bus."
It said protesters had been unable to send tweets or photos from the area.
"Please, Mr. Mayor, could you give us your thoughts and an explanation?" the comment said.
'Bridge for communication'
Li's initial post, which was retweeted more than 18,000 times and garnered more than 17,000 comments by Friday evening local time, said he had opened a Weibo account in order to build "a bridge for communication" with local people.
Comments came thick and fast within seconds of each other; some congratulatory, others concerned about environmental protection, including concerns about the PX plant and the state of nearby beauty spot Dianchi Lake.
An official surnamed Wang at the Yunnan provincial environmental protection department said the planned plant would have a refining capacity of 10 million tons a year, of which 650,000 tons would be PX, a carcinogenic petrochemical used in the textiles industry.
"Right now the government is entering into a process of consultation and explanation with local citizens," Wang said.
"It will be for the provincial government to make the final decision about whether this project goes ahead or not," he told RFA's Mandarin service on Thursday.
Wang said he could understand the strength of resistance to the project.
"I'm a native of Yunnan myself," he said. "The PX project encountered strong popular resistance in Dalian, Xiamen, and other places, and now they want to bring it to Kunming, a region of beautiful mountains and lakes."
"We find this disturbing, and we don't like them moving polluting industry out here just because the more developed coastal regions want to enjoy cleaner air and water," Wang said.
Lack of information
A Kunming resident surnamed Shi said he was "fairly opposed" to the plant, largely because of a lack of clear information.
"The government here communicates very little with the general public, and people don't trust the government to regulate the plant properly after it is built," Shi said.
"If they don't regulate it properly, then that will harm everybody."
The Anning refinery would produce gasoline, diesel, other various chemicals and fertilisers as well as PX, according to PetroChina's planning submission to the State Development and Reform Commission (SDRC) in Beijing.
State media last week quoted company officials as saying that the refinery would not produce PX, however.
More than three decades of rapid economic growth have sent China’s environment into crisis, officials say,
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.
Reported by Gao Shan and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.