Demonstrators clashed with riot police in central Ningbo yesterday, as protests against the proposed expansion of a Sinopec plant drew the largest crowds yet.
Scuffles were reported outside the city government headquarters and in the central Tianyi Square, where more than a thousand turned up to air concerns about pollution from the oil refinery and chemical plant expansion in the Zhejiang province seaport.
The Ningbo plant produces 500,000 tonnes of paraxylene, or PX, a year, which can damage the central nervous system, liver and kidneys. Chronic exposure can result in death.
Xinhua said the expansion, which would increase oil-refining capacity by 15 million tonnes and annual ethylene-production capacity by 1.2 million tonnes, met environmental requirements.
Protesters began gathering at Tianyi Square at around 9am, carrying banners and chanting slogans. Later, they assembled outside the government headquarters. Some wore glasses and masks to protect against tear gas and shouted: "[We] would rather be beaten to death than poisoned to death."
One witness told the Sunday Morning Post that many protesters had been taken away by the police. "An increasing number of anti-riot policemen have arrived at the scene, and they're all well equipped," he said.
Police blocked roads to the city centre and the Zhenhai district, where the plants are located, in an effort to prevent more from joining the rally. Protesters complained they were unable to post photos online after microblogging services were suspended.
The demonstrations in Ningbo - a city of 7.6 million near Shanghai - are the latest in a string of protests over environmental pollution. Such incidents illustrate the social tensions confronting the central government as it approaches its once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
The Zhenhai government said in a statement yesterday that it would listen to the public's concerns and conduct an environmental assessment of the 55.9 billion yuan (HK$68.7 billion) project.
It said three teams had been sent to villages near the oil refinery to assess opinions.
The government has pressed ahead with the project despite more than three weeks of protests.
On Friday night, protesters besieged a police station and a traffic police headquarters in Zhenhai.
Ningbo police said several hundred protesters threw stones and bricks at police and police buildings, injuring several police officers. Protesters also overturned at least one police vehicle outside the station.