Chinese riot police clashed with thousands of environmental protesters in Sichuan province on Tuesday, using tear gas to disperse demonstrators, in the latest example of escalating grassroots protests over pollution in China.
Residents of Shifang, a south-western city, have been protesting since Sunday over the construction of a metals refinery that they say will endanger their health. On Tuesday evening, eyewitnesses said riot police and military Swat teams had filled the city centre after tear gas battles earlier in the day.
In a rare victory for environmentalists, the Shifang city government and Sichuan Hongda, a Shanghai-listed metals producer behind the planned $1.6bn copper refinery, issued statements saying they would cancel the plant and never build such a facility in the city.
However, protesters still thronged the city centre demanding the release of some students who were arrested during earlier protests, according to posts on Weibo, the microblogging site.
The clashes underscore the rising discontent facing the Communist party, which is struggling to balance economic growth – seen as key to social stability – against rising environmental problems. They also come at a particularly sensitive time for China’s leaders, who are preparing to hand over power to a new generation this year.
Chinese people are growing tired of mounting pollution problems, which officials call a “threat to growth”. The World Bank estimates that at least 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from pollution-related causes.
Demonstrators told the Financial Times of their concerns about the planned Hongda refinery.
“The copper factory will be bad for our health,” said a restaurant owner who joined the protests. “We only found out about it on June 29 when [the company] held the groundbreaking ceremony, otherwise we would have been protesting earlier.”
She added that residents of neighbouring cities had shown their support by coming to Shifang, a city of about 400,000 people, to join the protests. “Shifang” was the most searched term on Tuesday on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
The Shifang demonstrations are the latest in a number of environmental protests in China. Hundreds of residents of the southern town of Daan in Guangdong province protested on Monday against chronic water pollution, which they say is caused by illegal rare earths mines.
Last week, thousands of residents in Guangzhou petitioned for an incinerator project to be moved elsewhere. And last year, more than 10,000 people in Dalian demonstrated against a chemical plant; the government promised to close the facility, but it remains in operation today.
On Monday, the Shifang government tried to quell the protests by promising to suspend construction, but demonstrators said they were not convinced the suspension would be permanent. The government said no protesters had been killed, but two residents said they believed one or two had been beaten to death by riot police.