Authorities in protest-stricken Chinese city hold talks with citizens

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Authorities in a protest-stricken city in southern China have promised to communicate better with citizens battling plans for a chemical plant, after protesters complained that violence by law enforcement officials killed several and injured dozens.

Images of Sunday's violence, which surfaced on Chinese social media, but were later deleted by censors, triggered an outcry. The government has said no one was killed in the demonstrations, but it has not said if anyone was hurt.

City officials in Maoming, site of the proposed plant, held peaceful talks with protesters on Tuesday, the city government said in a statement on Wednesday.

"(The officials) chatted with them face to face, listened to their protests and opinions," it said, without acknowledging the demonstrators' complaints about the violence.

Maoming's deputy mayor told the protesters the project was still in the planning stages and far from being approved, it said, adding that the city would make efforts to communicate better with citizens. The authorities also urged citizens not to let themselves be "used by criminals", exhorting them to work together to safeguard social stability.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday urged China to investigate the apparent excessive use of force by police against the Maoming protesters.

"Premier Li Keqiang has pledged to launch a 'war on pollution'," China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement. "Yet when citizens demonstrate their concerns for the environment they appear to be in harm's way."

Hundreds of Maoming residents held demonstrations on Sunday and Monday to oppose the plant, intended to make paraxylene, a petrochemical used to make fabrics and plastic bottles.

The plant would be owned by the local government and state-controlled Sinopec Corp, China's biggest refiner.

On Tuesday, many travelled to the provincial capital of Guangzhou, but the number of demonstrators had petered out by late in the afternoon, witnesses told Reuters.

Unverifiable mobile phone videos, obtained by Reuters, showed demonstrators arguing with police on Tuesday, as they hold colourful umbrellas and signs calling for the paraxylene plant to "roll out of Maoming". In one, several police pulled away a woman protester.

A video of Sunday's protest, which turned violent, showed dozens of demonstrators being chased through a street by police wearing riot gear and wielding long batons, who then fired tear gas at the fleeing people.

Choking smog blankets many Chinese cities, and environmental degradation, the cost of the country's breakneck economic growth, has earned the ire of an increasingly educated and affluent urban class.

The eastern city of Ningbo suspended a petrochemical project after days of demonstrations in November 2012, and protests forced the suspension of a paraxylene plant in the northeastern city of Dalian the year before. A similar demonstration took place in the southern city of Kunming last year.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.