Thousands of Chinese Villagers Protest Factory Pollution

By JIM YARDLEY

New York Times

April 13, 2005

BEIJING, April 13 - Thousands of people rioted this week in a village in southeastern China, overturning police cars and driving away officers who had tried to stop elderly villagers protesting against pollution from nearby factories.

By this afternoon, three days after the riot, witnesses say crowds had convened in Huaxi Village in Zhejiang Province to gawk at a tableau of destroyed police cars and shattered windows. Police officers outside the village were reportedly blocking reporters from entering the scene but local people, reached by telephone, said villagers controlled the riot area.

"The villagers will not give up if there is no concrete action to move the factories away," said Mr. Lu, a villager who witnessed part of the confrontation and refused to give his full name. "The crowd is growing. There are at least 50,000 or 60,000 people."

Other villagers gave substantially smaller crowd estimates. But they agreed on the broad outlines of a violent clash on Sunday that came when local villagers acted on their frustration after, they say, trying in vain for two years to curb pollution from chemical plants in a nearby industrial park.

An account in a local state-controlled newspaper blamed the brawl on local agitators and said thousands of people had set upon government workers with rocks, clubs and sticks.

There were conflicting reports of injuries, and Mr. Lu said two elderly female protesters were gravely injured after being run over by a police vehicle. The story in the Dongyang Daily newspaper said more than 30 government employees were hospitalized, including five with serious injuries. Neither account could be confirmed.

The riot occurred on the same weekend that several thousand people in Beijing and Guangzhou held protests against Japan. These demonstrations, however, were officially authorized, with youthful urbanites shouting angry slogans and, at one point, tossing bottles at the Japanese Embassy, at a time of heightened diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

But the riot described in Huaxi Village is seen as a symptom of the widening social unrest in the Chinese countryside that has become a serious concern for government leaders. Last year, tens of thousands of protesters in western Sichuan Province clashed with the police in a protest over a long-disputed dam project. Smaller rural protests are becoming commonplace and are often violent.

Huaxi Village is a few hours' drive south of Hangzhou, the provincial capital of coastal Zhejiang. It is a short distance from the Zhuxi Industrial Function Zone, the local industrial park that villagers say is home to 13 chemical factories.

"The air stinks from the factories," said a villager, Wang Yuehe. She said the local river was filled with pollutants that had contaminated surrounding farmland.

"We can't grow our crops. The factories had promised to do a good environmental job, but they have done almost nothing."

Mrs. Wang said that villagers had pooled their money for two years and sent representatives to file complaints at government petition offices in Zhejiang Province and in Beijing. "But there have been no results so far," she said.

On March 24, a group of elderly people, mostly women, set up bamboo tents and other barriers on the road leading to the factories. On April 2, the government temporarily shut down the factories. But by Sunday, local officials had dispatched police officers and workers to break up the protest. Villagers said as many as 3,000 officers arrived in scores of cars and buses.

The fight apparently erupted after officers had already dismantled the makeshift tent city on the road. Villagers say thousands of angry people hurried to the scene after the police attacked some of the elderly protesters. The mob then surrounded workers and officers, according to witnesses and the newspaper account.

Some local officials who had retreated to a nearby school compound were attacked when they tried to leave on foot. "I saw over 10 bodies on the ground, both officials and villagers," said Mr. Lu.

Several villagers said that local officials own shares in different local factories. But according to the story in the official newspaper, local officials had "paid great attention" to the environmental problems and had paid compensation for past discharges of pollutants into the river.

The story also said that officials decided to break up the protests on Sunday because they were worried that "the coming of cold air and dramatic temperature drops threatened the health of feeble old women."

A reporter for an English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post, managed to visit the riot scene and described overturned buses and shattered cars, adding that "a police uniform is draped over one car - a trophy." The reporter , whose account was published today, was detained by the police after leaving the village but released after her notes were confiscated.