By Megha Rajagopalan and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Protests against a proposed chemical plant in southern China spread to the provincial capital of Guangzhou on Tuesday, even as authorities signaled they may back down on their construction plans in attempt to head off more unrest.
Public anger has grown after graphic photos surfaced on Chinese social networks early this week, showing demonstrators in the nearby city of Maoming - the location of the proposed plant - lying bloodied on the streets as rows of paramilitary police marched in formation.
On Sunday, hundreds of Maoming residents poured into the streets protesting against the plant producing paraxylene, a petrochemical used in making fabric and plastic bottles, and environmental degradation.
Protesters in the Guangdong provincial capital of Guangzhou on Tuesday renewed calls for an end to the chemical plant project, as well as justice for those who they believe were hurt or killed at the hands of paramilitary police on Sunday.
The government said no one was killed in demonstrations on Sunday and Monday, and did not mention whether anyone was hurt. Two protesters disputed the claim, telling Reuters that several people were killed and dozens hurt, though they did not know the exact number of casualties.
"The provincial government has a responsibility to address this," said one protester by telephone, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. "It's not right that the paramilitary police can injure or beat people to death. It violates our most basic interests as citizens."
Photos obtained by Reuters showed tear gas being fired at demonstrators on Monday.
Hundreds demonstrated at Guangzhou's Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall early in the day, witnesses said, but no more than a few dozen were left by the afternoon. There was no violence during Tuesday's protest, they said, though many police surrounded the demonstration.
"We will renew our demands until this matter is resolved - our first goal is for the paraxylene project to be canceled," another demonstrator, surnamed Liang, said by telephone. "Second, we must find out who commanded the murderers to beat people to death - we must know the truth."
China's Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment.
GOVERNMENT VOWS TO LISTEN
In a statement posted late on Monday on its official Weibo account, the government of Maoming, in the wealthy southern coastal province of Guangdong, said the project was still far from being approved.
"If the majority of people are against it, the city government won't make a decision contrary to public opinion," it said.
The city has previously called the protests a "grave violation" by criminals causing chaos.
The images of violence - which could not be independently verified by Reuters - have caused an outcry on Chinese social media, though many were later removed by censors.
The plant would be owned by the local government and state-controlled Sinopec Corp, China's biggest refiner.
The influential tabloid the Global Times, run by the Communist Party's official People's Daily, said in an editorial on Tuesday that the government had to break the "vicious spiral" of public opposition to PX plants, which were needed to lessen Chinese reliance on imports.
The eastern city of Ningbo suspended a petrochemical project after days of demonstrations in November 2012, and protests forced the suspension of a paraxylene plant in the northeastern city of Dalian the year before. A similar demonstration took place in the southern city of Kunming last year.
Choking smog blankets many Chinese cities, and environmental degradation, the cost of the country's breakneck economic growth, has earned the ire of an increasingly educated and affluent urban class.
(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Michael Perry and Jeremy Laurence)