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Chinese officials bow to protests, halt petrochemical factory project

NINGBO, China -- Thousands of protesters who marched through an eastern Chinese city on Sunday against the expansion of a petrochemical factory won a pledge from the local government that the project would be halted.

The Ningbo city government said in a statement Sunday evening that they and the project's investor had “resolutely” agreed not to go ahead with the expansion.

Outside the government offices where crowds of protesters remained, an official tried to read the statement on a loudspeaker but was drowned out by shouts demanding the mayor step down. On the third attempt, the crowd briefly cheered but then turned back to demanding that authorities release protesters being held inside.

Liu Li, 24, a Ningbo resident, said the crowd did not believe the government's statement.

“There is very little public confidence in the government,” she said. “Who knows if they are saying this just to make us leave and then keep on doing the project.”

It was unclear whether local authorities will ultimately cancel the project or continue it when the pressure is lower.

Hundreds of protesters outside the government offices refused to budge despite being urged to leave by officials. Riot police with helmets and shields then came out of the government compound and pushed the crowd back. Police dragged six men and one woman into the compound, beating and kicking at least three of them. Police also smashed placards and took away flags.

The crowd roared for the protesters' release.

The demonstration in wealthy Zhejiang province is the latest this year over fears of health risks from industrial projects.

“The government hides information from the people. They are only interested in scoring political points and making money,” said one protester, Luo Luan. “They don't care about destroying the environment or damaging people's lives.”

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.

In a sign that censors were at work, the name “Zhenhai” — the city district where the factory is located — was blocked on popular microblogging site Sina Weibo.

Protester Yu Yibing said he wanted the factory to be closed 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.

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.

It said in a short statement on its website Sunday evening that the project wouldn't go ahead and that refining at the factory would stop for the time being while a scientific review is conducted.

Earlier story on page 8

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A protest leader talks to residents as they march in Zhejiang province's Ningbo city, protesting the proposed expansion of a petrochemical factory, Sunday, Oct. 28. Thousands of people in the city clashed with police Saturday, Oct. 29 while protesting the plan that they say would spew pollution and damage public health, townspeople said. (AP)

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