Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have shelved plans to build a public crematorium near Huazhou city after clashes between protesters and riot police firing tear gas and wielding batons.
Last week’s clashes in Huazhou’s Wenlou township, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Hong Kong, saw around 1,000 armed riot police take over the town after residents made barricades on the streets to block the passage of armored vehicles, local residents told RFA at the time.
Social media posts showed a line of overturned police cars, while eyewitnesses said younger people had hit back at incoming police lines with projectiles. Dozens of people were beaten and detained before police regained control of the area, according to local media reports and eyewitness accounts.
Media reports said some demonstrators were chanting slogans similar to those heard across Hong Kong, including “Revolution now!”
The Wenlou clashes came after local officials carried out a consultation exercise for an “ecological park” in the neighborhood, garnering signatures from local people, then announced they would build a crematorium instead, protesters told RFA.
While the issue at stake was far more localized and limited in impact than the broader demands of the Hong Kong protest movement, many observers have noted striking parallels between the Wenlou demonstrations and those across the internal border.
A Wenlou resident who gave only his surnamed Huang said the unrest appeared to have subsided by Monday after pitched battles between police and local residents on Thursday and Friday.
“Everything’s fine now. I went out to buy some things and I think the shops are all open and people have gone back to work,” Huang said. “Everything’s back to normal.”
He said the government had “handled the situation well” in recent days.
Project suspended for consultation
The Huazhou city government issued a statement on Friday saying the crematorium project was now suspended, pending further public consultation.
But it warned that anyone “disrupting public order” would be pursued according to the law.
Rights activist Fan Yiping said it is possible that the authorities have learned a lesson from months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, where the city government was slow to respond to public fears around plans to allow extradition to mainland China.
Millions of people took to the streets, but the government’s response came only after widespread anger over police violence against protesters, and was widely regarded as too little, too late.
“Given the situation in Hong Kong right now, [the Huazhou] incident is particularly sensitive,” Fan said. “It’s not wrong to say that people are making connections between them, either.”
“The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has had a huge impact on mainland China,” he said. “The authorities are absolutely terrified of it. They hate it with all their being, and want it put down.”
“They think it will bring down chaos on their own heads if it’s not properly dealt with.”
Indeed, state-run Chinese media have been at pains to characterize the anti-extradition movement, which later broadened to include demands for full democracy and an independent inquiry into police violence, as the work of a handful of pro-independence radicals bent on wreaking havoc at the instigation of “hostile foreign forces.”
‘Fierce right from the start’
“Fan said the Wenlou protests were different from Hong Kong’s in one key respect, because they used force from the outset.
“The [protesters] were pretty fierce right from the start,” he said. “People in rural areas are very particular about feng shui [the positioning of graves], and the authorities have been digging up their ancestors’ graves.”
“The reaction was much more intense, and happened more quickly,” he said.
Huang said protesters were worried about pollution from the crematorium, as well as its sheer size.
“The project was just too large in terms of size, with chimneys of more than 60 meters,” he said. “There would be a lot of pollution across the town, and it wouldn’t be good for the town’s image–developers wouldn’t come here much in future [if they build this].”
In April 2014, residents of Ligang, also near Huazhou city, clashed with armed police during a mass protest at government plans to build a crematorium.
Thousands of people took part in that protest, also over the planned construction of a crematorium, which in turn came soon after mass protests against plans for a petrochemical plant in nearby Maoming city.
Construction later halted on the Ligang crematorium project.
Earlier in the same month, tens of thousands of people gathered outside government offices in Maoming against a planned U.S.$563 million paraxylene (PX) plant, in a mass demonstration that later turned violent.