On March 30, tens of thousands of residents protested in Maoming City of southern China’s Guangdong Province against the local government launching a petrochemical plant in the city. Clashes between protesters and armed police caused a large number of injuries, while the authorities censored news reports and described the backlash as orchestrated by “a small number of outlaws.”
Photos posted on Chinese social media websites show people with blood over their faces and shirts, while several lie on the ground, apparently beaten unconscious. A large number of protesters have accused riot police of violently attacking peaceful activists with batons, tear gas, and water cannons.
Many of those posts were quickly deleted from domestic websites, but were available outside China.
A video (unconfirmed) uploaded to YouTube shows a large group of armed police using batons and shields to beat protesters gathering in front of the municipal government building of Maoming.
Estimates of death tolls and injuries vary: participants have estimated that eight people died and 300 hundred were injured, though the claims are not readily verifiable. Eyewitnesses said that more than 1,000 riot police were dispatched to violently put down the protesters.
The city government published an announcement on its official website, saying, “no one died,” without mentioning the injuries and crackdown. The announcement also condemned “a few troublemakers” who allegedly threw stones and water bottles at around 10:30 p.m. Sunday.
Protests started with several hundred people at 8:30 a.m., and gradually swelled to tens of thousands. Protesters requested a meeting with the Maoming City government and Party leaders over the soon-to-be-opened paraxylene plant. Paraxylene is an essential chemical in the production of fiber and plastic bottles, but can damage, sometimes fatally, internal organs and the central nervous system if inhaled.
Videos show protesters shouting slogans and holding banners with “PX Out of Maoming!” and “We Want Clean Air!” while marching toward official buildings. Passersby clap and shout their support.
Later, police carrying long truncheons are shown to move in on protesters as the crowd scatters; they then start firing what appear to be tear gas canisters into the crowd. In another video, a police officer forcefully strikes a supine protester with a thin metal baton, to the shock of onlookers.
The object of the protests is a paraxylene plant, built at the cost of 3.5 billion yuan ($563 million), which adds to the city’s existing petrochemical operations, jointly run by the local government and state-owned oil giant Sinopec. The new plant can produce 600,000 tons of paraxylene per year.
Opponents worry about the safety of a chemical plant in a city with a population of around seven million. Many are also angry that the local authorities pushed the project through with minimal to no consultation.
Guangdong resident Su Anyan wrote on social media: “Once there’s an incident, the government blockades the city, the information, and the media.”
“Is the government’s decision based on people’s opinion?”
“PX is a high pollution project. The government sacrifices the environment and people’s health to gain higher GDP. I’ve given up hope in the Maoming government,” she wrote.
Mainland media has been silent on the protests and clashes, but the announcement by the local government condemning the protests for “seriously violating the law and seriously impacting social order” has been published by the state-run Maoming Daily and widely reproduced on major media in China.
Similar mass protests against paraxylene plants have also taken place in other Chinese cities in recent years, including Kunming, Yunnan Province last May; Ningbo, Zhejiang Province in October 2012; and Dalian, Liaoning Province in August 2011.
Wan Fang contributed reporting.