Ningbo residents reacted warily yesterday to the city government's decision to halt the expansion of a Sinopec petrochemical complex, with hundreds of people continuing to protest.
Experts said the stand-off highlighted deepening distrust of government on the mainland.
Ningbo police rejected a rumour that a university student had been killed in a riot in the northern Zhejiang city over the weekend, and said a woman had been detained for spreading the rumour.
Searches for "Zhenhai", the district where the petrochemical complex is located, returned no results on the Sina Weibo microblogging site. And people in Ningbo found they were unable to upload pictures. A foreign cameraman was reportedly taken away by police while conducting an interview.
After a week of protests that swelled into big weekend demonstrations, the city government pledged to suspend the 55.8 billion yuan (HK$68.7 billion) expansion plan pending "scientific debate".
Yesterday it said that plans to increase production of paraxylene, or PX - a chemical that can damage the central nervous system, liver and kidneys - had been completely scrapped. Police also arrested a protester on Sunday night for carrying a knife and pepper powder, it said.
The plant already produces 500,000 tonnes of PX a year.
Some locals described the government's decision as a "delaying tactic" aimed at dispelling public anger at a time when the government was intent on fostering harmony ahead of next month's leadership transition.
"The Ningbo government has already lost its credibility … until today, it was unwilling to give a detailed explanation about PX or the project expansion," one resident said.
He doubted any meaningful consultation would be carried out on the expansion plan because the local media, which was heavily censored, could not accurately reflect public opinion.
"Our posts on social media, such as Sina Weibo, on the project are all deleted. We don't have any platform to make our voice heard," he said. "As far as I know, relocation and preliminary construction work are already under way. I really doubt the government will be willing to give up the project at this moment."
Ma Jun , director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, said the about-turn was the fourth time in a year in which a massive industrial project had been delayed or cancelled due to mounting public awareness of the environment and the effects of pollution.
However, a petrochemical plant in Dalian in Liaoning province that was at the centre of a toxic pollution scare last year was still operating normally despite a pledge by top local officials it would be shut down and relocated, he said.
"This is seriously damaging to the government's credibility," Ma said.