Rumours fuel new protests in Shifang
The Sichuan city of Shifang saw renewed protests over a heavy-metal plant yesterday, as hundreds of people returned to express outrage over the handling of earlier demonstrations.
The fresh protest held near the local government headquarters, which came amid local authorities' repeated warnings against mass gatherings, highlighted continued tensions and public distrust of the administration after three days of demonstrations last week that led to the shelving of the controversial plant.
In response to mounting public pressure, local authorities vowed to scrap the plan for the multibillion-yuan molybdenum-copper alloy plant, and they assigned a deputy mayor of Deyang, which administers Shifang, to manage the snowballing crisis.
The latest protest appeared to have been prompted by rumours that a 14-year-old girl was beaten to death during clashes with anti-riot police nearly a week ago, according to witnesses and microblog postings.
Despite repeated denials by local authorities, rumours continued to swirl about the alleged death.
'At least several hundred people flocked to Hongda Square near the city's Communist Party headquarters in the morning, in an apparent bid to hold a public mourning,' one witness told the South China Morning Post by phone. 'But frankly, few people knew whether a fatality occurred in the clashes.'
Traffic near the city centre was slowed due to the large crowd. Jittery authorities in Shifang were put on high alert, with a large number of uniformed and plain-clothes officers deployed at the scene.
The newly appointed top party official, Zuo Zheng, appeared yesterday on local television - shown on several outdoor screens near the square - to dismiss reports of the death and appeal for understanding.
'He said the authorities have heeded public concerns and properly handled the whole incident,' another witness said.
The crowd began to disperse in the early afternoon and no violence or conflicts were reported.
Other witnesses said the renewed protest was prompted by another rumour that at least two students from the neighbouring city of Guanghan , who participated in last week's protest, were still in police custody.
The local government said last week that it had released all but three out of more than a dozen people who were detained during the protests. It said the three still in detention were suspected of criminal offences, though further details were not given.
Local police also detained another local resident for allegedly spreading rumours about the death, according to an official microblog statement posted by the city government's press office at the weekend.
Many locals said they were extremely disappointed with local authorities ordering the use of force - including the firing of stun grenades and tear gas - against peaceful protesters last week, adding that it had further eroded public trust.