Warning Over Copper Plant Clashes


Chinese authorities crack down on environmental protesters opposed to a new metal refinery.

Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan on Tuesday vowed to pursue the organizers of protests against a new metals plant as angry local residents continued with a second day of demonstrations, clashing with riot police near government buildings in Shifang city.

"They are still firing tear gas today, and people are still getting hurt," said a local resident surnamed Lu. "There are a lot of people still on the area around the square, about 100-200 meters from the municipal government offices."

Police issued a statement warning local people that they would be "severely punished" if they sought to continue the protests against the 10.4 billion yuan (U.S.$1.65 billion) copper molybdenum plant, which has triggered fears of pollution among Shifang residents.

"The police have closed off some major roads, and it seems that the government has mobilized a huge police presence," Lu said.

A resident surnamed Liu said the authorities had sent out mass SMS text messages to Shifang residents' phones, backing up their message.

"The government has only said that work has stopped; they haven't said it will be canceled," Liu said. "We are worried that they will continue to build this factory after everything has quietened down, when people have stopped making a fuss," she said.

Another resident who declined to be named said he estimated the crowd at around 2,000 people when he saw it.

"There were people everywhere.... Armed police and riot police were there too," he said. "The local police didn't get involved much; these were brought in from outside."

He confirmed reports of tear gas being fired. "Yes, they definitely had that when I went there," he said. "I couldn't open my eyes."

"They fired it a lot, in the afternoon and evening, and even late at night."

Clashes with police

Official media said that protesters attacked government offices with bricks and stones, smashed cars, and clashed directly with police and government employees in protests on Monday.

"Anyone who has incited, planned or organized illegal gatherings, protest marches or demonstrations or those who have engaged in smashing and looting ... will be punished severely," the police statement said.

"Anyone using the Internet, mobile text messages and other methods to incite, plan or organize illegal gatherings, protest marches, or demonstrations must immediately stop their illegal activities."

Photos posted online showed hundreds of police in riot gear clashing with protesters, many of whom were smeared with blood. Protesters carried banners calling for the planned construction of the factory to be halted.

Online postings said local residents said they were scared of the damage that heavy metals processing would do to the local environment.

"The protesters went past our shop," said a local business owner surnamed Fang on Monday. "There were schoolchildren there with their parents, too."

"Just now I heard the sound of tear-gas being fired, maybe three times," she said. "My colleagues are saying it was more than three."

"There were also ambulances rushing past, and there were children and elderly among the injured...They are close by right now, so we're pretty worried," Fang added.

A teacher who answered the phone at the local high school said the protests had begun on Sunday as a peaceful demonstration mostly by schoolchildren.

"A lot of students went [on Sunday]," she said. "A lot of them went again [on Monday], and their parents, too."

"The school held a meeting for the teachers to tell us not to take part in the demonstrations," the teacher said. "They wanted us to stop the students from going as well."

Construction halted

The Shifang municipal government said in a statement on its website on Monday that work would "stop immediately" on the planned plant. The decision had been made by the municipal Party secretary and the government after investigating the situation, it said.

An official who answered the phone at an emergency help desk set up in the wake of the unrest confirmed that work on the copper molybdenum plant had halted.

"We have had a huge number [of calls]," he said. "I have already answered hundreds of phone calls."

Asked if construction on the plant had stopped, he replied, "That is the information we have been given."

"Shifang" was the most-searched topic on Sina Weibo on Tuesday, with more than 10 million searches, Agence France-Presse reported.

Shifang was among the areas badly hit by the devastating 2008 earthquake that killed 88,000 people in southwestern China.

Battery makers and lead and zinc smelting plants have been blamed for a wave of lead poisoning cases affecting thousands of children across China in recent years, sometimes sparking violent protests.

Ordinary Chinese people are becoming increasingly active in support of environmental issues in recent years.

Activists say that China has an exemplary set of environmental protection legislation, but that environmental officials lack the power to impose it on powerful vested interests at the local level.

Sichuan-based environmental activist Yang Xin said the Shifang government should have consulted more fully with local people before going ahead with the plans for the plant.

"They should also ensure, as a government, that there is a free and open flow of information, including the harmful effects of certain materials on human health, so that people know about it," Yang said.

"Some enterprises also need to boost their investment in environmental protection, and manage these polluting waste materials during the production process."

Reported by Wen Yuqing and Grace Kei Lai-see for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu and Gao Shan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.