A Sunday rally against a petrochemical plant in the southern Chinese Province of Guangdong was instigated by “a group of outlaws,” the Maoming city government said, reacting to a rare show of public discontent in a city plagued by corruption scandals.
Photos uploaded to social media showed several people lying seemingly unconscious in pools of blood on the southern city’s streets. The participants in the protest speak of arbitrary violence by members of the police against peaceful demonstrators.
The Maoming government said on Monday that some demonstrators provoked police action by throwing rocks and water bottles at public facilities around 10.30pm on Sunday.
The protesters were demonstrating against the addition of a 3.5 billion yuan (HK$4.4 billion) paraxylene (PX) plant to the city's existing petrochemical operations jointly run by the local government and state-owned oil giant Sinopec. A local spokesman for Sinopec, Asia’s biggest refiner, could not be reached by phone and email on Monday morning.
The photos, many of which have since been deleted from Sina Weibo, showed hundreds of people gathering in the early hours of Sunday, holding banners and eventually marching through the city in protest of the new plant.
The local government had warned against the demonstration on Sunday morning, calling it “illegal” in a statement on the municipal government website.
Two eyewitnesses who attended the protest said the number of participants rose from several hundred to more than a thousand once the march began. Police and demonstrators clashed around 3pm, one person said.
At least one police van is seen on fire in some of the photos shared online.
No one was killed in the protest and ensuing violence, said the government statement, without clarifying on the number of people wounded or arrested. One eyewitness said he saw dozens police detain at least two people on Sunday morning. Several others were detained in the afternoon, he said.
The local municipal government information office, the local Communist Party propaganda department and the information office of local police could not be reached by phone as of 5pm on Monday.
The protest was “a serious offence, which seriously affected social order,” said the government statement. It called on residents to “not give criminals the opportunity to create chaos and destroy the precious environment of stable and harmonious development.”
The protest attracted nationwide attention, quickly becoming one of the most discussed topics on social media on Sunday, until censors waded in and banned searches for “Maoming” and deleted scores of photos shared by participants.
On Monday, the Maoming Daily, a municipal government mouthpiece, carried a lengthy article on its front-page  praising the PX project, describing paraxylene as "an important element for a happy life".
A series of street protests against petrochemical plants have occurred in several Chinese cities in recent years after two previous popular campaigns proved successful in dissuading officials from approving the highly controversial petrochemical plants.
Plans for building PX-projects were shelved in Xiamen, Fujian province in 2007 and in Dalian, Liaoning province four years later, after locals took to the streets in massive marches, fearing that pollution from the plants could yield devastating heath hazards.
The protest in Maoming came on the same day Guangdong provincial graft inspectors announced an inquiry into former senior municipal official Feng Limei.
Last year, the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection sent more than 70 anti-graft investigators to the city to widen previous investigations into allegations of widespread graft in the city government.
Two former party secretaries have received suspended death sentences as a result of the inquiry, one of the largest in the province under then provincial party secretary Wang Yang, now a vice premier.
Zhou Zhenhong, Maoming’s party secretary between 2002 and 2007, was handed the sentence last month for having taken more than 20 million yuan in bribes and holding 37 million yuan in unaccounted property. His successor Luo Yinguo had already been handed the same sentence last year.
In 2012, at least 300 officials were investigated over graft allegations in the city. Only 20 of them have stood trial, the Beijing News said on Monday .