NANTONG, China--A massive demonstration sparked by environmental concerns against a Japanese paper company here quickly turned into a riot against local officials on July 28, with thousands occupying a city government building site and attacking police.
Police used force to quell the protests, but city officials were forced to cancel plans to construct a drainage pipeline from a paper mill operated by Oji Paper Co. to discharge treated wastewater into the sea.
The demonstration in this coastal city’s Qidong district drove home the mounting public anger toward local corruption and the expanding economic disparity. It also demonstrated how protesters are increasingly forcing leaders to contain the spread of their protests to the government by giving into their demands.
About 5,000 people filled the streets in central Qidong before 6 a.m., when the rally began. The protesters began chanting, “Protect the environment” against the dangers posed by a plan for a drainage pipeline into local waters.
But less than 10 minutes later, the crowd broke through a row of police officers blocking the main street and started marching toward the city government building 1 kilometer away.
The demonstrators became louder after they reached the building.
Several minutes later, they pulled down the steel gate and swarmed over the premises.
About 2,000 occupied the inner courtyard, several thousand on the street in front of the city government building and many others in nearby structures overlooking the building, bringing the total of protesters to more than 10,000.
“Local officials do not give a damn for citizens,” some complained.
Some protesters shattered glass doors and hundreds of them broke into the building.
They broke windows in halls on the first and second floors and destroyed the signboards of the Communist Party and other items.
Then they moved on to the offices for the secretary of the party’s municipal committee and other senior officials.
They threw computers from the window and overturned desks, chairs and documents.
When they discovered a large amount of high-end liquor and wine to entertain guests in a room, their anger boiled over.
“The officials are having something like this constantly,” one of them yelled.
Dozens of liquor and wine bottles were smashed against the floor.
The demonstrators’ rage was also directed against police.
In front of the police building, hundreds of protesters began throwing plastic bottles and pieces of brick at police officers.
A male protester shouted, “The government and police are of the same breed” and attacked the officers, who offered no resistance.
Police were apparently ordered beforehand not to use force against the protesters.
But the officers changed their tactics sometime past noon.
They caught the demonstrators who were throwing plastic bottles and about a dozen officers began kicking and hitting them.
Through the evening that day, many protesters were injured, with their faces covered in blood, and others were taken away by police.
Local authorities apparently decided to take a tougher stance by mobilizing armed police in camouflage gear and blockading the area surrounding the government building.
This is not the first time a local government was forced to scrap a planned project upon being confronted by massive demonstrations.
About 10,000 citizens gathered around the local government building in the Shifang district of Deyang, Sichuan province, on July 1, to oppose construction of a metal refinery.
According to local residents, people in their 20s or so spearheaded the demonstration. The demonstrators grew outraged as some were injured after the local authorities deployed armed police to suppress the protest.
Two days later, local officials announced the cancellation of the project.
On July 5, the top official of the local government, who is secretary of the Communist Party’s municipal committee, was effectively dismissed.
The protests in Qidong and Shifang were similar in that demonstrators opposed projects that could pose threats to public health. The projects were pushed by local authorities without gaining public support.
People in regional cities are gradually growing aware of the importance of conservation and human rights.
They no longer appear to be afraid of taking to the streets to have their voices heard after learning of the success of protest rallies elsewhere.
In Amoy in Fujian province, the city government in 2007 canceled a plan to build a factory to produce paraxylene, a material used in synthetic fabric, by a Taiwanese company in response to citizens’ demands.
The city government of Dalian in Liaoning province in 2011 announced the immediate halt of production and relocation of a factory that manufactures paraxylene, only six hours after a mass protest began. The protesters feared possible discharge of contaminants from the factory.
Tang Mingdeng, a journalist, said that in recent years, local officials are willing to cancel or postpone planned projects in the face of massive rallies out of concern for themselves.
“They want to avoid a situation where the fallout of protests will spread to provincial governments or the central government,” Tang said. “A local government for its own reason pushes a project without any prior consent from the public or scraps it all of a sudden. Citizens were not involved in the decision.”
While some called for a boycott of Japanese products in the protest in Qidong because Oji Paper is a Japanese company, a large number of postings on the Internet criticized the local government for having ignored the voices of local residents.
The central government is going to great lengths to maintain social stability as it is preparing for transition of power to new leadership in autumn.
President Hu Jintao underscored the party’s need to place priority on democracy and the rule of law in a recent address.
But the string of protests showed a gap between reality and the top leaders’ stated desire.
(This article was written by Atsushi Okudera in Qidong in Nantong, Jiangsu province, and Nozomu Hayashi in Beijing.)
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