Police in southwestern Sichuan province deployed tear gas against residents protesting a planned molybdenum copper plant in the latest case of environmental activism facing at times violent resistance from authorities.
Unrest in the small city of Shifang, famous for crafting cigars for Mao Zedong, comes roughly a year after massive protests rocked the northeastern city of Dalian. Unlike in Shifang, environmental protests in Dalian in August ended largely peacefully after local officials promised to close a controversial petrochemical plant.
Details of the protest Monday in Shifang were murky. The search term “Shifang” quickly became the most-searched term on Sina’s popular Weibo microblogging service Monday afternoon, with users posting photos and videos they say were from the protest.
“Save our homes and environment for the next generation,” read one protest banner, according to a picture posted on Weibo.
The exact size of the protest wasn’t clear, and city officials couldn’t be reached to comment. An employee at the emergency room of Shifang People’s Hospital said not many had sought treatment as a result of the protest, but declined to provide details.
A statement posted to the city government’s website said the type of people who supported the Shifang protests were the same as those supporting overseas groups opposed by the Chinese government. The statement specifically mentioned the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong and the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual leader.
“Don’t have a superstitious belief in the paper tiger,” the statement read. “They are vicious and merciless and can only convey unrest.”
The Shifang protests appeared to be part of China’s emerging “not-in-my-backyard” movement, where young urban-dwellers in particular have become increasingly vocal in opposing industrial projects viewed as damaging to the environment and their health.
Violence in Shifang came in stark contrast to a largely peaceful resolution reached in Dalian last year. In that case, some 12,000 protesters demanded the city’s Communist Party chief relocate a seaside petrochemical plant, which many feared would be badly damaged in a storm.
The government later promised to relocate the plant, though some foreign media reported earlier this year it was back up and running.
Residents on Monday were protesting a planned molybdenum copper project there, according to the government statement and Internet accounts. Among other usages, molybdenum-copper alloys are used as a material in heat sinks.
The protesters’ exact concerns over the plant weren’t clear, but may likely be tied to health concerns. The American Cancer Society says in places where molybdenum is processed, prolonged exposure can cause weakness fatigue and headaches, among other ailments.
Weibo users by and large expressed support for the protesters Monday.
“Shouldn’t tear gas be thrown at the enemy?” one user questioned. “Yet our Shifang government nevertheless takes it and throws it at the good and honest masses of people. Lamentable.”