BEIJING - After word spread about an environmental protest that was planned for Saturday in the central Chinese city of Chengdu, drugstores and printing shops were ordered to report anyone making certain purchases. Microbloggers say government fliers urged people not to demonstrate, and schools were told to stay open to keep students on campus.
And when Saturday came, thousands of police officers and security staff were on Chengdu's streets, some of them making a tight ring around a major public square. A weekend-long earthquake drill, officials said, but many residents didn't believe it. They said city officials pre-emptively quashed the protest over a petrochemical plant that a powerful state-owned enterprise is building about 40 kilometers northwest of Chengdu.
"What do they fear?" asked local resident Tina Zhong, contacted via China's social media. "If the government can share more information, the public would be less distrusting."
While China punishes political dissent aggressively, it has been somewhat more tolerant of environmental complaints. The public, especially members of China's rising middle class, have become more outspoken against environmentally risky plants, and several mass protests against such projects turned violent last year before local governments agreed to scrap the plans.
In the city of Qidong in eastern China, protesters against a wastewater discharge project last year even briefly occupied the local government compound and stripped a high-ranking official half-naked.
The reaction to the protest plans in Chengdu, provincial capital of Sichuan province, raises questions about whether China is getting tougher on dissent over environmental issues, though a protest Saturday in southern China saw less heavy-handed government tactics.