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By Sui-Lee Wee
HAIMEN, China, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Police fired teargas to break up demonstrations on Thursday over a proposed power plant in a southern China town, where protests have escalated into clashes with police this week and officials tried to calm tempers by suspending the project.
Riot police were out in force and blocking entrances to Haimen town, aiming teargas canisters at lines of protesters on motorbikes to quell the latest outbreak of unrest in the southern province of Guangdong, an economic powerhouse.
Haimen, a coastal town of about 120,000 people, is about 130 km (80 miles) east of the village of Wukan, where a 10-day siege of villagers protesting against a “land grab” ended on Wednesday after the provincial government brokered a deal.
Protests in China have become relatively common over corruption, pollution, wages, and land grabs that local-level officials justify in the name of development. Chinese experts put the number of “mass incidents”, as such protests are known, at about 90,000 a year in recent years.
The grip of Communist Party rule is not directly threatened by such bursts of unrest, but officials fear they could coalesce into broader, more organised challenges to their power.
The Haimen tensions have flared for three days as residents protest against plans for another coal-fired power plant, some turning over cars and throwing bricks in clashes with police.
On Thursday, riot police sent teargas into an open space to hold back a large band of protesters on motorbikes, according to footage shown on Hong Kong’s Cable TV. As smoke billowed towards the crowd, some protesters could be seen riding away quickly.
A Reuters witness earlier saw about 100 men on motorbikes had gathered to watch the wall of police, armed with batons and shields, who were blocking the highway near a large, shuttered petrol station.
“What place in the world builds two power plants within one kilometre?” said one of the Haimen residents, surnamed Cai, as he watched police lines just a few hundred metres away.
“The factories are hazardous to our health. Our fish are dying and there are so many people who’ve got cancer,” he said.
“We thought of protesting outside the government office but we know none of them has listened to us. So we had no choice but to block the highway. The police beat up so many of the protesters in the past two days.”
At one point on Thursday the Haimen residents screamed and surged forward when a riot policeman, waving his baton in the air, charged towards a man on a motorcycle who had been riding towards the police blockade on the highway.
“This place is very chaotic, I think it’s best for you to leave immediately,” a man who identified himself as a Shantou government official told a Reuters reporter.
Officials said on Wednesday they would suspend construction on the project, but residents refused to back down, demanding the plan be scrapped completely.
The Haimen unrest is the latest challenge for Guangdong Party chief Wang Yang, a contender for promotion to the highest echelons of the Communist Party in a leadership transition in late 2012.
China’s top newspaper on Thursday praised the defusing of tensions in nearby Wukan, suggesting that the handling of the dispute would not necessarily hurt Wang’s prospects.
The People’s Daily chided local officials for letting the dispute get out of hand in the first place, but also hailed the outcome as an example of how the government should handle an increasingly fractious and vocal society.
Residents of Wukan had fended off police with barricades and held protests for days over the land dispute and death in police custody of a village organiser, rejecting the government’s position that an autopsy showed he died of natural causes.
But after talks with senior officials, village representatives told residents to pull down protest banners and go back to their normal lives — provided the government kept to its word.
Police in Haimen are going the more traditional route for breaking up protests in China — with teargas and truncheons. Exits to Haimen from the expressway to nearby Shantou city were closed down.
But life appeared to be normal in other parts of Haimen on Thursday, with shops open and people going about their business.
Government officials, including those in charge of security, have been vague and played down the unrest. A Shantou official told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday there had been injuries in the clashes but no deaths.
On Thursday, an official at the Chaoyang Public Security Bureau denied any deaths or injuries, although he said there had been a “gathering” the previous day. Haimen is under the jurisdiction of Chaoyang district.
State news agency Xinhua said several hundred people had protested on a highway on Wednesday. According to Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, more than 1,000 residents had gathered at a toll gate to confront hundreds of riot police.
On Thursday, China’s main official newspapers published an account of a speech by Zhou Yongkang, chief of domestic security, who urged law-and-order cadres to ensure “a harmonious and stable social setting” ahead of the Communist Party’s 18th Congress late next year.
At that congress, President Hu Jintao and his cohort will give way to a new generation of central leaders, a sensitive transition for the one-party government. (Additional reporting by Sisi Tang, Alison Leung and Tan Ee Lyn in HONG KONG, and Ben Blanchard and Chris Buckley in BEIJING; Editing by Paul Tait)