By Ben Blanchard
SHIFANG, China (Reuters) - Authorities in a southwestern Chinese city halted construction of a copper refinery following protests by residents that it would poison them, and freed most of the people who were detained after a clash with police over the row.
Both decisions are highly unusual in the tightly controlled nation, but underline the depth of public anger against environmental pollution.
Thousands of people in the southwestern city of Shifang had taken to the streets over the past three days against the government's plans to allow building of the $1.6 billion plant, the latest unrest spurred by environmental concerns in the world's second-largest economy.
The Shifang government said police had "forcibly taken away 27 suspected criminals" on Monday and Tuesday for tearing down the door of the municipal government building, smashing windows, and throwing bricks and stones at police and government workers.
Six are still in police custody, the city government said in a statement on its official Sina Weibo microblogging site.
"The remaining 21 people, after receiving criticism and education and repenting for their mistakes, were released at 11 p.m. on July 3," it said.
On Tuesday night, the local government said it was halting the metals project planned by Shanghai-listed Sichuan Hongda. The city initially had said it would only suspend the project.
However, on Wednesday afternoon, about 100 people remained gathered in the street outside the city's Communist Party headquarters, some fanning themselves in the heat of the midday sun. A resident surnamed Chen told Reuters that the people were relatives of those still detained.
"People are still waiting to see if the government follows through on its promise not to build the plant," said the man. "There will be more protests if we are not convinced."
Nearby, large-screen televisions repeatedly showed an interview with a local official promising that the building of the plant would now not go ahead.
Loudspeakers, scattered around the centre of town, broadcast the government's oft-repeated statements about not believing rumors or to be led astray by "people with ulterior motives".
Despite the dual concessions, some Chinese called for the punishment of officials responsible for the violent crackdown. An 18-year-old resident told Reuters by telephone on Tuesday the police had beaten protesters the previous night.
"What are we going to do about the bastards who used violence on innocent people?" wrote a microblogger.
SEA OF PEOPLE
Photos of Tuesday night's sit-in protest published on microblogs showed a large crowd sitting down under street lamps, in what one microblogger described as "a sea of people" demanding the release of those detained.
The protests turned violent on Monday when tens of thousands of residents stormed the city government headquarters, smashed police cars and clashed with thousands of anti-riot police, who fired tear gas on protesters.
"Everyone is scared by this project," said Luo Meili, who works in her family restaurant near the industrial zone outside Shifang where the factory was set to be built.
"It will harm our families' health. We don't believe what the government says."
According to the International Finance Corp, an arm of the World Bank, copper smelting and refining can produce mercury, sulphur dioxide, arsenic and other pollutants.
The latest protest underscores how environmental worries in China have stoked calls for expanded rights for citizens and greater consultation. They follow similar demonstrations against projects in the cities of Dalian in the northeast and Haimen in southern Guangdong province in the past year.
The protests are emblematic of the rising discontent facing Chinese leaders, who are obsessed with maintaining stability and struggling to balance growth with rising public anger over environmental threats.
The leadership has vowed to clean up China's skies and waterways, and increasingly tried to appear responsive to complaints about pollution. But environmental disputes pit citizens against local officials whose aim is to lure fresh investment and revenue into their areas.
"The best of you emigrate, the worst of you are shot," China's most famous blogger, Han Han, wrote on his blog, addressing Shifang officials. "But none of you actually live in the pollution. Only ordinary people live there."
"Shifang" remained the most searched term on China's Twitter-like microblogs on Wednesday. Chinese authorities, who are usually quick to suppress dissent, did not block searches related to the protests.
"It is the 4th of July - 236 years ago America achieved independence, and 236 years later the Shifang people are fighting for their own rights and confronting the government," a microblogger wrote. "The government has repeatedly squandered the people's patience. It is time for us to be independent."
(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ken Wills and Raju Gopalakrishnan)