09/03/2009, 00.00
CHINA
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Chinese police arrest parents protesting blood lead poisoning in their children

In Wenping thousands of people take to the streets to protest against a plant that causes blood lead poisoning in children. Several have been arrested for allegedly belonging to banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. Police are trying to prevent all forms of gathering and protest, but residents insist they are only fighting for the children’s health.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Police in Hunan have detained at least 15 parents for blocking roads and storming government offices in Wenping township (in Wugang City, Hunan) to protest factory pollution that left more than 1,300 children with high levels of lead poisoning in their blood. Police have accused the parents of being members of the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that was banned ten years ago. Since then group members have been persecuted, arrested and sent for long stints in laogai (rehabilitation-through-labour) camps. But until now it was extremely rare for mainland authorities to blame major social unrest on the Falun Gong.

In a notice posted on the official website of the Wugang city government, which includes Wenping, the authorities said that “since the lead poisoning incident our leaders have taken rapid and careful steps to help the public. But a handful of diehard Falun Gong practitioners from overseas have tried to influence the public with lies and rumours”.

Similarly, the authorities have issued a number of new rules as a stern warning to locals, including prohibiting people from gathering or "spreading rumours".

Yesterday villagers mocked the accusation, saying the authorities were using the charge as revenge against parents for protesting over the pollution scandal which started when medical tests showed high levels of lead blood poisoning in children living near the Wugang Manganese smelter.

Residents did complain about the pollution but had little success. Still the matter received national media coverage.

Currently residents said the area is under tight police controls and further protests are impossible.

More and more parents believe the authorities do not want to help their children. They are also increasingly afraid because the authorities are going after the organisers of last month’s protests.

“When I saw this notice [about the Falun Gong charges] I laughed till my stomach hurt,” a villager, Dai Zuoyi, said. “There have never been any Falun Gong followers in Wenping. This is clearly a reprisal attack against villagers.”

Dai’s five-year-old son has excessive levels of lead in his blood, a condition that can damage the nervous and reproductive systems and cause high blood pressure and memory loss. His brother-in-law Li Changye was among the parents detained this week; the latter’s six-year-old son also suffers from the same ailment.

Yet local government officials have denied that any Wenping residents had been detained, except for likely “Falun Gong” members.

In the meantime residents of Quanzhou (Fujian) have scored a temporary victory with the closure of a water treatment plant in Fengwei.

On Monday a peaceful protest by more than 10,000 people turned violent when about 2,000 armed police clashed with the villagers for hours in order to force them to disperse.

Since then the authorities have not taken any steps against the protesters and have pulled police back from the area.

At present things are calm but tense. Tens of residents are guarding the plant; women have gongs to sound the alarm if it should start up again.

Locals blame the plant, which began operating in late 2007, for liver, lung and throat cancers. They believed that at least 5,000 people were directly affected by the pollution it generated and that another 80,000 residents in nearby villages have been put at risk.

The government has promised to treat cancer patients, also pledging to compensate farmers, who have seen their businesses ruined as their reputation suffered.

Residents are now waiting, insisting that the pollution is clearly evident and that the government must provide a reasonable explanation. At the same time though, they are concerned because the authorities in cooperation with leading world oil companies is planning to build new oil refineries and chemical plants in the area.

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