HUZHOU, China (Reuters) - More than a thousand people flooded the streets of a town in eastern China’s Zhejiang province Thursday night, smashing cars and facing riot police as they extended earlier protests sparked by a dispute between tax officials and a store owner.
At around 8 p.m. in the center of Zhili township near Huzhou city, protesters — most from neighboring Anhui province — marched toward the local government offices, overturning cars and shouting: “People of Anhui, unite!”
Protests began Wednesday when a children’s clothing store owner from Anhui refused to make tax payments to local officials and then mustered other shop keepers to rally in support and attack the officials, state-run news site Zhejiang Online reported.
That dispute spilled on to the street and drew more than 600 people, the report said, with protesters hurling rocks, smashing traffic lights, billboards and cars, and injuring several public security personnel before police dispersed the crowds.
Chinese leaders, obsessed with maintaining stability, have struggled to balance growth with persistent public discontent, often stemming from corruption, pollution and illegal land grabs winked at by local officials looking to boost development.
Pictures posted earlier Thursday to China’s Twitter-like microblogging service, Sina’s Weibo, showed large crowds blocking traffic and shield-toting riot police marching through the streets. One photo showed a public security bus engulfed in flames.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the authenticity of the images.
At midday, a Huzhou government propaganda official, who declined to be identified, said by telephone that the incident had “quieted down.”
But as the unrest erupted again Thursday night, details were murky about the protesters’ impetus, though many cited mistreatment of people from Anhui.
“We are angry at the government. Some people were beaten up, some people were knocked down by a car. They (the government) are not giving us any reply. We have to continue (protesting),” one young man from Anhui said.
An hour after the latest bout of protests, truckloads of armed police, advancing with riot shields and batons, largely dispersed the crowd and sealed of the town center.
Searches for Zhili on Weibo had been blocked, though photos of the riots could be found through other search terms.
Most outbursts of unrest in China are small, local-level protests by farmers, workers and other disgruntled groups.
But such protests have heightened anxieties among China’s senior leaders determined to defend one-party rule ahead of a leadership transition late next year, when President Hu Jintao is expected to step down as head of the Communist Party.
Top officials have also promised to tighten control of social media, such as microblogs that provide instant and often viral accounts of unrest and official misconduct.
Writing and additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing and Sisi Tang in Hong Kong; Editing by Jacqueline Wong