Pollution protests prompt police crackdown in eastern China

China’s rising middle class is becoming increasingly vocal about its aversion to potentially harmful pollution coming from new developments–this was evidenced by massive protests over a proposed petrochemical plant expansion this weekend.

The Boston Globe, via AP, reports that thousands took to the streets in eastern China this weekend. Offical reports said the protesters were clashing with police and disturbing the peace by staging sit-ins, unfurling banners, distributing fliers, and obstructing roads.

But people on the scene in Ningbo city report that there were bigger crowds and more rock and brick throwing going on than official reports indicate:

“Residents, however, said the protests … turned violent after authorities used tear gas to dispel the crowds and arrested participants.

”It started with a peaceful petition but turned into a citywide riot,’ said a local resident who gave only his family name, Ren, because he had come under police watch. He said he was called in by police because of his frequent online postings about the project, which would produce chemicals such as ethylene and paraxylene.

Ren said the protests intensified Friday when young residents returned home for the weekend. He said 4,000 to 5,000 people blocked major road entrances to the district and that the public grew angry when police arrested three college students and used tear gas on the crowds.

He said demonstrators overturned a car, and some smashed the door of a fire truck that arrived to hose off leaked gasoline as well as to disperse protesters.

Thousands of protesters stormed a local police station, where they demanded the students’ release and a dialogue with district officials. Ren said the protesters also went to a traffic police compound, where they overturned police vehicles and private cars.

He said riot police moved in to form a shield to guard the traffic police compound and that protesters threw rocks and water bottles at the riot police.

Later Friday night, police began beating protesters and passersby with batons, Ren said.”

All of this did not go unnoticed by local officials, who held an emergency meeting Saturday night to figure out how best to manage thousands of pissed off protesters. The Sun Daily reports that the rumour mill is grinding away, and police have now taken to their blog to try to calm everyone down:

“Local Communist Party officials insisted that the chemical plant project had not been formally approved and agreed to listen to the protesters’ demands, the statement said.

The government also ordered police to “maintain stability in accordance with law”, rhetoric that often signals a heavy-handed crackdown.

Photos posted on the www.molihua.org website, which monitors social unrest, showed protesters facing off against thousands of riot police as security forces streamed into Ningbo’s Zhenhai district where the 55.9 billion yuan ($8.9 billion) plant is to be located.

Rioting erupted amid rumours that police had beaten to death a local college student — a rumour police immediately denied.

‘Those people circulating fabricated rumours that police have beaten to death a college student have had an odious social impact,’ Zhenhai police said in a posting on their microblog site.

‘Following investigation it was found that a certain woman had spread the rumour, (she) will be dealt with in accordance with law. The police warn citizens not to believe rumours and not to spread them.'”

Yipes. What do you think? Is the middle class making its presence known, or are the crackdowns going to get a lot worse before they get better?

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