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China vows crackdown after latest protest

Agence France Presse - July 3, 2012

Chinese police vowed Tuesday to crack down on protesters after riot officers clashed with hundreds of people rallying against a planned new metals plant over fears about its environmental impact.

The country's latest bout of social unrest broke out in the small city of Shifang, which is still trying to recover after being badly hit in a 2008 earthquake that killed 88,000 people in the southwest of the country.

In unusually strong language, Shifang police warned citizens Tuesday that they would be "severely punished" if they sought to continue the "illegal" protests.

The violence erupted on Monday when, according to the official account, protesters attacked government offices with bricks and stones, smashed cars, and clashed directly with police and government employees.

"Anyone who has incited, planned or organised illegal gatherings, protest marches or demonstrations or those who have engaged in smashing and looting... will be punished severely," the police said in a statement.

"Anyone using the Internet, mobile text messages and other methods to incite, plan or organise illegal gatherings, protest marches or demonstrations must immediately stop their illegal activities."

While warning against further protests, the local government issued a statement on Monday saying construction of the factory had been suspended.

Photos posted online, which could not be immediately verified by AFP, showed hundreds of police in riot gear clashing with protesters.

Many of the images depicted bloodied demonstrators. Others showed hundreds of people marching through the streets carrying banners calling for the planned factory to be scrapped.

A Shifang resident contacted by AFP by phone, who declined to be identified, said police with batons continued to patrol Shifang on Tuesday and fire tear gas.

Another resident posted a plea on Chinese microblog site Sina Weibo for police not to harm the protesters.

"You have fired tear gas, our biggest weapon is plastic water bottles. You are fully armed, we are dressed in simple clothes," the resident posted. The microblogger confirmed to AFP the posting as authentic when reached by phone, but declined to be named.

The factory would process a heavy metal, and residents said in web postings they were scared of the damage it would do to the local environment.

Social unrest is a major problem for China's communist rulers, who are struggling to deal with anger across the vast nation of 1.3 billion people over issues such as environmental degradation, rising inequality and corruption. Protests similar to the one in Shifang are reported regularly.

While authorities typically seek to control information, Chinese web users take to Twitter-style microblog sites such as Sina Weibo in a bid to get around the censors. "Shifang" was the most-searched topic on Sina Weibo on Tuesday, with more than 10 million searches.

Shifang has a population of about 220,000 people, and is 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province in the country's southwest. Calls to the Shifang police and government went unanswered Tuesday.

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