BEIJING — A southern Chinese city has vowed to listen to public opinion in deciding whether to go ahead with a petrochemical plant after protests by residents turned into violent riots.
The protests Sunday centered on a proposal to build a plant in Maoming city in Guangdong province to manufacture paraxylene, also called PX. The chemical is used in the production of plastic bottles and polyesters, and such plants have become a hot-button issue around the country because of health concerns, especially among China’s growing middle class.
A Maoming government spokesman said there is no timetable for the launch of the plant and officials still haven’t carried out an environmental evaluation.
“A decision won’t be made before reaching a consensus with the public,” said the spokesman, who like many Chinese bureaucrats would give only his surname, Zhen. Similar comments were posted on the city government’s microblog.
Sunday’s protest started out peacefully, with more than 1,000 people staging a sit-in at city government offices in the morning while police stood guard, resident Chen Yifeng said Tuesday.
By the early evening, police reinforcements arrived in dozens of vehicles and tear gas was fired to disperse the demonstrators. At around 10 p.m., about 20 people on motorbikes threw bricks, stones and bottles at riot police, destroyed traffic signs and set fire to roadside police booths, Chen said.
Photos and videos purportedly posted by Maoming residents on social media sites showed police with batons chasing people, men in a hospital with cuts to their heads, people smashing streetlights and an overturned car.
The city government said in a statement Monday that police acted “quickly and decisively” to take control of the situation. It said no one had died, but didn’t say how many were injured.
A press officer at the Maoming public security bureau refused to comment to foreign media, although Zhen said evidence had been collected and arrests were expected.
In a statement issued Wednesday, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch condemned what it called a politically motivated crackdown and called for an investigation into the incident.
“Accounts and photographs suggest that police may have used disproportionate force against demonstrators in Maoming,” said Sophie Richardson, the group’s China director. “Authorities should move swiftly to investigate these claims, and hold those responsible to account.”
Residents demonstrating against paraxylene projects have been buoyed by some protests in recent years that have won promises from local authorities that the plans would be shelved or more public consultation sought.
An editorial Tuesday in the Global Times, a popular nationalist tabloid published by the Communist Party, said “the whole country seems to be trapped in a negative cycle of protests and suspension of PX plants.”