Residents of an eastern Chinese city who have been protesting over a new chemical plant have reacted warily to news that the project would be halted, with some continuing to demonstrate.

Authorities in Ningbo city said late on Sunday that work on the 55.9bn-yuan ($8.9bn) oil refining and petrochemical complex would be called off after thousands of locals clashed with police in a week-long protest.

The demonstrations and apparent victory of local residents is the latest example of environmental activism arising from public anger over pollution wrought by decades of rapid development.

Outside the Ningbo city government offices on Monday, police sought to disperse a crowd of people still massing outside, though the gathering was peaceful, an AFP news agency journalist, who was briefly detained by police, reported.

Despite the government promise to halt the new plant by Chinese petrochemicals giant Sinopec, some Ningbo residents said they feared the city could later revive the project.

"Unfortunately, it is perhaps just a stalling tactic ... the government felt pressure and was eager to wind this matter up, so there's no victory for us," Sha Shi Di Sao Zi said on a microblog.

Official statement

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

One of the signs displayed at Sunday's protest read
'Get out of Ningbo' [Reuters]

The factory is a subsidiary of Sinopec, one of the biggest petrochemical companies in the world.

Outside the government offices where crowds of protesters remained, an official tried to read the statement using 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 held inside.

Hundreds of people refused to budge despite being urged to leave by officials. Riot police with helmets and shields came out of the government compound and pushed the crowd back.

Some people including families ran away. 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 protests came in advance of a once-in-a-decade Communist Party congress starting on November 8 at which new leaders will be selected.

Before the delicate handover, authorities are keen to present a show of harmony.

Growing awareness

Some internet users portrayed the stand-off in Ningbo as a victory reflecting growing environmental awareness among Chinese people.

"Mighty Ningbo people! Congratulations on your victory!" said one who gave the name Grail Tao Daowei in a microblog posting.

Ningbo's Zhenhai district - the proposed site for the factory - said on Sunday it would "ban" production of paraxylene (PX), a petrochemical used for plastic bottles, which had been the focus of residents' health fears.

The official Xinhua News Agency say the planned project is designed to produce 15 million tonnes of refined oil and 1.2 million tonnes of ethylene per year and belongs to Sinopec Zhenhai Refining & Chemical Co, which has invested $8.9 billion.

Calls to Zhenhai police and the propaganda department of Ningbo police went unanswered on Sunday.

Past environmental protests have targeted a waste-water pipeline in eastern China and a copper plant in west-central China.

A week ago, hundreds protested for several days in a small town on China's Hainan island over a coal-fired power plant.

Source: Agencies