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China tightens grip on environmental dissent

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 forming 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 25 miles 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 turned violent last year before local governments agreed to scrap such plans.

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.

Hundreds of people gathered in Kunming to protest a planned refinery project in the area. The demonstrators demanded information transparency and that public health be safeguarded.

That project and the plant near Chengdu are owned by PetroChina, the country's largest oil and gas producer. The plant being built northwest of Chengdu in Pengzhou is expected to produce 10 million tons of refined oil and 800,000 tons of ethylene per year.

Residents say they are worried the plant would pollute the air and water, and question why the plant is being built in a region prone to earthquakes.

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