Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Scmp) - A village in Dongyang, Zhejiang province, erupted in a massive riot on Sunday when over 30,000 villagers clashed with police who were disrupting a protest against pollution.
Reports that police had killed some of the elderly women protesters sparked the chaos in Hua Xi village in Dongyang. More than 50 government vehicles, including 14 cars and at least 40 buses, were turned over and destroyed. A total of 128 people were sent to the hospital for treatment, and 36 were admitted for longer-term care.
One resident said that police officers, armed with clubs and shields, tried to disperse the group of elderly women, firing tear gas.
"They arrived at the sheds at about 5am and began dispersing the women. A number of the women passed out after they were hit with electrified clubs... They just hit the elderly women," said the resident. He said he heard that at least two elderly women died after being run over by police cars. Some protesters even had their eyeballs fall out, said the resident, he added. The casualties could not be confirmed.
Some protesters were whisked off by police cars.
For about a month, the 200 elderly protesters had been staging an around-the clock vigil outside the Hua Xi Middle School, not far from an industrial zone. They were protesting against the heavy pollution emitted by 13 chemical plants 250 metres away. They lived in makeshift bamboo sheds they had erected.
On Sunday morning, rumours quickly spread that at least one of the protesters had been killed, sparking a rush by 30,000 to 40,000 villagers to the site, the witness said. "This is like almost all of the town's population was there," he said.
Residents said since the 13 chemical plants were erected in 2001, the pollution had affected the environment so badly that the soil was barren and local vegetables inedible. "The turnip's skin is white, but it's dark inside," said one resident who took part in the riot.
Villagers had to give up farming and earn a living by working at small trades, he said. "At the beginning, there was just one factory; now there are about 13 of them. We complained to the city government, asking for the relocation of either the factories or the village, but got no response.
"One official even said the factories would remain there even if all the people in the village died," he said.
"Young people didn't dare [join the original protest], since if they did, they would have been immediately harassed," the resident said, explaining why most of the protesters were elderly.
Dongyang government spokesman Chen Qixian last night denied that anyone was killed when the protest was broken up. He said 1,000 government officials, including at least 100 policemen, were used in the operation.
An informed source said mainland media had been restricted from reporting sensitive news about Zhejiang for fear that it would discourage foreign investment in the coastal province, which has seen extensive investments from overseas, Hong Kong and Taiwan in recent years.