BEIJING – Villagers in southwestern China infuriated by a factory that was polluting the environment smashed its offices and equipment, and later clashed with police, underscoring the potential for such concerns to trigger violent unrest.
Residents of Baha, a village in Yunnan province, said Wednesday that police were arresting people involved in Friday’s clash at the local police station. The official Xinhua News Agency said police had identified 16 suspects.
Three villagers reached by phone said they had grown increasingly angry over a local metalwork factory that had been coughing up black smoke and discharging polluted wastewater into the rural area.
When the factory’s boss refused to meet with villagers last week, they smashed cars, equipment, offices and dormitories, said Nong Dingting and Huang Liangzheng, two of the villagers.
“We have been living with the factory for 14 years, and we live in dust almost every day and can’t sell our rice and other farm products,” Huang said. “We need to live.”
Police were ordering villagers who took part in the clashes to surrender, Xinhua said. Huang said he was on his way to the police station.
“Yes, I am one of those people they are looking for and I have nothing to fear,” Huang said.
An official at Guangnan county’s Communist Party propaganda department who gave his surname as Lei said he did not have any information about the incident. Calls to county police rang unanswered.
Environmental protests are on the rise in China, with the public becoming increasingly critical of the fouling of the country’s air, soil and waterways by decades of breakneck development.
Pollution concerns resonate well among Chinese, and such unrest poses a serious political challenge to the Communist Party. Anger over the party’s response, or lack thereof, to environmental woes can easily fuel wider dissatisfaction with corruption and a lack of official accountability.
Most protests have taken place along China’s developed coastal region, reflecting the area’s heavy pollution from industry as well as the wealthier citizenry’s rising demands. But the latest unrest was in rural Yunnan, highlighting the spread of environmental concerns further inland.
Yunnan’s provincial capital, Kunming, was also the site of large protests last year against a planned petroleum refinery that were largely peaceful despite minor scuffles between demonstrators and police.
In the most recent unrest, the villagers said they went to the police station to seek the release of a few of the people who had been detained after the attack on the factory. It was police who first attacked the villagers, said Lin Huasheng, another Baha resident.
Lin said several villagers were hurt, while Xinhua said two government employees had been injured.
The villagers also disputed other points reported by Xinhua, including that the factory had suspended operations in October. Nong, one of the Baha residents, said the factory had been operating right up until the Jan. 31 Lunar New Year holiday.