BEIJING — Authorities in western China ordered organizers of a violent protest against a planned copper alloy plant to surrender or face severe punishment a day after thousands of residents clashed with police in the latest example of Chinese environmental activism.
The Shifang government in Sichuan province warned on its micro-blog Tuesday that anyone who had "enticed, planned and organized the illegal gathering and protest or participated in the vandalism" … would be severely punished.
Protesters began gathering outside a local government building Sunday, a day after a signing ceremony took place to build the $1.6 billion metal factory, according to news reports.
The demonstrations remained peaceful until Monday when police fired tear gas and stun grenades into the crowd, estimated by some to be in the tens of thousands, including children and the elderly.
Protesters responded by lobbing bricks, potted plants and water bottles at the government building.
Authorities said 13 protesters were injured in the melee, though micro-bloggers and Boxun, an overseas Chinese news site, reported there may have been fatalities.
Calls seeking comment from Sichuan Hongda, the plant owner, went unanswered Tuesday.
Earlier Monday, the city government said it would suspend the project and seek counsel from local residents on how to proceed. It also blamed the Dalai Lama and the banned spiritual group Falun Gong for instigating the unrest.
"Ordinary people basically worried that the Hongda program would pollute their environment," Chen Lin, Shifang's vice director of propaganda and de facto spokesman, said in a brief phone interview Tuesday.
"They first started something online, then they put it into practice," Chen said. "A lot of people were simply watching in the beginning, but then some extreme people were involved and then created physical conflicts. We understand their requests and we stopped the program."
News and pictures of the Shifang incident had yet to be banned by censors Tuesday afternoon — a curious decision given the sensitivity of social unrest in China. Many micro-bloggers expressed outrage over treatment of the demonstrators. Photographs of bloodied residents were passed around online with the heading: "Today, we are all Shifang people."
"They were kicking and using their batons," said a photo studio clerk who watched the clashes from across the street. "They didn't care who they were beating." The witness, who only gave her surname, Li, for fear of official retribution, said police were called in from neighboring cities to reinforce the local authorities. She said text messaging no longer worked in the city, which was under police lockdown Tuesday.
Local residents had been concerned about the copper plant long before the protests, but authorities ignored the complaints, according to the state-run Global Times.