NINGBO, China (AP) — Thousands of protesters marched through an eastern Chinese city on Sunday, shouting for fellow citizens to join them in demanding that the government halt the expansion of a petrochemical factory because of pollution fears.
The demonstration in Ningbo city in wealthy Zhejiang province is the latest this year over fears of health risks from industrial projects, as Chinese who have seen their living standards improve become more outspoken against environmentally risky projects in their areas.
Such protests are exactly what the Chinese leadership does not want ahead of next month's once-a-decade transition of power, with stability being paramount.
"The government hides information from the people. They are only interested in scoring political points and making money," said one protester, Luo Luan, who works in the insurance industry. "They don't care about destroying the environment or damaging people's lives."
Hundreds of residents headed from a city square toward the offices of the municipal government early Sunday. They were stopped by police at the gate, where they shouted for the release of people reportedly detained a day earlier.
Tensions rose after about 200 riot police walked out of the gate, tore down banners that people had hung in trees and grabbed at least three protesters, carrying them into the government compound.
The protesters threw plastic bottles and chanted, "Release the people."
Riot police with batons later guarded the back of the government offices.
Some protesters marched away from the offices in an apparent effort to round up more support. Hundreds roamed along nearby shopping streets. Police diverted traffic to allow them to pass down a main road.
The protests began a few days earlier in the coastal district of Zhenhai, where the petrochemical factory is located. On Saturday they swelled and spread to the center of Ningbo city, whose officials oversee Zhenhai.
Residents reported that Saturday's protests involved thousands of people and turned violent after authorities used tear gas and arrested participants.
Authorities said "a few" people disrupted public order by staging sit-ins, unfurling banners, distributing fliers and obstructing roads. Authorities said that the proposed project was under evaluation and that the public was being given opportunities to offer its input.
The crowds in Ningbo are a slice of China's rising middle class that poses an increasingly boisterous challenge to the country's incoming leadership: Armed with expensive smartphones, Internet connectivity and higher expectations than the generations before them, their impatience with the government's customary lack of response is palpable in every fist pump and every rendition of the national anthem they shout.
A 30-year-old woman surnamed Wang said officers took her to a police station Saturday and made her sign a guarantee that she would not participate in any more protests, but she came back Sunday anyway.
"They won't even let us sing the national anthem," Wang said. "They kept asking me who the leader of the protests was and I said that this is all voluntary. We have no leader."
Marchers included the elderly and children, as well as some pet poodles. People held up smartphones and tablet computers recording the protest and tried to send information to others through mobile Internet connections.
In a sign that censors were at work, the name "Zhenhai" — the city district where the factory is located — was blocked on China's popular microblogging site Sina Weibo, and searches for "chemical expansion project" were greeted with the line that "Some search results are not shown according to regulations." Those that were visible included postings from media sites that said authorities were holding meetings to hear public opinion.
Some protesters wore face masks and shouted slogans including "Protect Ningbo" and "Return my health."
"We have to do this for our future and our family's future," said a 40-year-old protester surnamed Jing as she pointed to the smoggy air. "The sky was so clear when I was a child. Look at it now."
Another protester, Yu Yibing, said he wanted the factory to be closed, not expanded, and his 7-year-old son to grow up in a clean environment.
"As the common people, we need to live in a green environment. This is a reasonable request," Yu said. "But the government only puts out some statement and refuses to see us and also suppresses us. I don't know how else we can express our views."
The Zhenhai district government, which comes under the Ningbo government, said Ningbo's Communist Party chief, Wang Huizhong, and mayor, Liu Qi, had held discussions with local residents Saturday night.
A statement on the district government's website Sunday said the opinions and advice of the people who attended were "very helpful" to the party committee and municipal government's decision-making and that the expansion project was "at an early stage."
"We will further solicit opinions and respond to people's concerns and actively respond to people's reasonable requests and demands," the statement said.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the planned project is designed to produce 15 million tons of refined oil and 1.2 million tons of ethylene per year and belongs to Sinopec Zhenhai Refining & Chemical Co., which has invested 55.87 billion yuan ($8.9 billion).
Calls to Zhenhai police and the propaganda department of Ningbo police rang unanswered Sunday.
Past environmental protests have targeted a waste-water pipeline in eastern China and a copper plant in west-central China. A week ago, hundreds protested for several days in a small town on China's Hainan island over a coal-fired power plant.
Associated Press writer Louise Watt and researcher Henry Hou in Beijing contributed to this report.