Residents of a south China town protesting the building of a coal-fired power plant threw bricks at police who fired volleys of tear gas and detained dozens in the country’s latest unrest over an environmental dispute, townspeople said Monday. At least 1,000 people in the small town of Yinggehai on China’s Hainan island launched several days of protests starting last week after construction resumed on the plant, which had been halted by earlier demonstrations. Dozens have been injured and many detained by police, who have put the town under strict surveillance, residents said. Police and local officials declined to comment. “They fired tear gas to disperse the crowds in the past few days,” said a resident who gave only his surname, Xian, because he didn’t want to be identified by authorities. “We don’t want a power plant here that will cause serious pollution.”
Three decades of rapid economic expansion in China have come at an environmental price, and residents have become increasingly outspoken about pollution in their backyards. In July, a southern town in Sichuan province scrapped plans for a copper plant after thousands clashed with police, and another community in eastern Jiangsu province dropped a waste water plant after similar demonstrations. The protests are especially sensitive because they come ahead of next month’s change in China’s top leaders, who will have to balance a push for economic growth with maintaining public stability.
Meanwhile, local leaders must balance their desire to attract industry with a public who do not want it in their neighborhoods. In Yinggehai, an earlier round of protests took place in April when the plant project was first announced. Authorities then moved the project to another Hainan town, but it also drew strong opposition there and officials returned to their original plan, Xian said.
Schools in Yinggehai, a town of 18,000 people, have been closed since last Thursday, said another resident who lives in Shenzhen but is in regular contact with friends and family in his hometown. Clashes between brick-wielding locals and police armed with batons broke out after officers detained some of the protesters and fired tear gas canisters, said the man, 26, who gave only his surname, Lin. He said authorities had taken some of the injured away from hospitals, making people afraid to go to them. Security officers had entered schools and homes, and were guarding local government offices and main roads, Lin said.
The heavy security presence meant fewer people were protesting by the weekend, and then only under the cover of darkness. “We usually take to the street during the night so as to avoid being identified by police who are using video cameras to film the crowd,” Xian said. A Hong Kong-based rights group, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, said 50 people had been arrested and almost 100 injured in the protests over the 3.9 billion renminbi ($620 million) plant. Local authorities declined comment of referred questions to other offices where phone calls rang unanswered.
A man from the township police substation refused to comment and hung up. A woman from Yinggehai township government said she had no information to share. Officials at Ledong County government referred the call to the county party committee propaganda department and the provincial foreign affairs office. Calls to both offices rang unanswered, as did calls to the propaganda office of Sanya city, which oversees Ledong.