China says 14 protesters plead guilty to encouraging mass riot against polluting project

Fourteen people pleaded guilty to encouraging a riot in eastern China last year where scores of police were hurt and the local Communist Party chief was stripped half-naked in a mass protest that ultimately forced the scrapping of a wastewater treatment project.

The official Xinhua News Agency said the defendants were prosecuted Wednesday on charges of encouraging mass violence against government buildings and intentionally damaging property in Qidong city in Jiangsu province north of Shanghai. The sentences will be announced later, Xinhua said.

Thousands of people stormed the Qidong municipal government compound and turned at least one police car on its side at the protest on July 28.

Citing court documents, the state-run Southern Metropolis News from southern China said the defendants forcibly broke through the police cordon to attack and to smash government buildings, injuring at least 90 police officers, damaging several cars and causing property loss of more than 230,000 yuan ($37,000).

It also said the city's party chief was stripped half-naked after he refused to wear a T-shirt boycotting the project while the mayor was forced to wear such a T-shirt.

The protesters were worried that the wastewater from the Japanese company Oji Paper in upstream Nantong city would not be cleaned enough before being discharged into the sea, although Oji had assured the wastewater would be properly treated.

Reacting to the prosecution of the protesters, some Chinese netizens questioned why government officials were not held responsible for their decision to permit the project without soliciting public input while some said the defendants had acted excessively.

Chinese have become outspoken about environmentally risky projects in their backyards, with pollution a leading cause of unrest. Last year, the Chinese public also staged large-scale protests against a proposed copper plant in the southwestern province of Sichuan and a planned expansion of a petrochemical factory in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Like the Qidong project, the other two were eventually scrapped.

The grass-roots protests reflect the balancing act Chinese leaders are performing between maintaining public stability and pushing economic growth, and between local officials who want to attract industry and a public who do not want it in their neighborhoods.