Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) About 60,000 people came to the village of Huaxi (Zhejiang province) to protest against high, local levels of pollution.
The demonstrators said they would not budge until the government either moved or closed the 13 chemical plants which have polluted the water and ground around the village.
Police barred reporters from the scene, but locals reached by telephone said that "yesterday the crowd had reached at least 50,000 or 60,000 people".
For two years, Huaxi residents have petitioned the government to move the factories whose emissions have made agriculture virtually impossible, forcing farmers to seek other forms of employment.
The situation precipitated on April 10 when about 3,000 law enforcement officers descended on the village to break up the protest that had started on March 24 when a group of elderly people, mostly women, set up roadblocks on the road leading to the factories.
Unconfirmed reports about two people dying in the clashes between demonstrators and police have added fuel to the fire.
People began overturning police cars and breaking windows with police officers responding using truncheons and stun guns.
Many villagers are outraged at the fact that many local officials are said to own stocks in the 13 chemical plants.
Local, state-controlled press have instead said that officials are very concerned by environmental issues and have compensated farmers who suffered losses from contaminated emissions.
A local paper reported that the police decided to break up the protests on Sunday because they were worried that "the coming of cold air and a dramatic temperature drop threatened the health of feeble old women."
Pollution in China is much more than an environmental issue; it is increasingly becoming a social problem as well.
The riot in Huaxi is more a symptom of a widening social unrest that is spreading throughout the Chinese countryside.
Niu Wenyuan, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Policy and Management, warned that the country is facing more environmental pressures as rural areas became more urbanised. (MA)