By Ben Blanchard
SHIFANG, China (Reuters) - Lao Zhou splutters with rage when asked if he believes government promises to scrap plans for a copper refinery near his home in southwest China, a project which has sparked violent protests.
"They're liars!" the ruddy-faced farmer exclaims, spitting out his words in thickly accented Mandarin. "Nobody believes they won't build it eventually."
It was a remnant of the fury that erupted in Sichuan province's Shifang town last week, when thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the $1.6 billion refinery that they feared would poison their families. The city government swiftly called off the project.
Such protests, and back-downs, are becoming more frequent as the world's second-largest economy pursues headlong growth. In August 2011, thousands of protesters forced the closure of a paraxylene plant after marching on the city square in the major city of Dalian in northeastern China.
While China faces tens of thousands of "mass incidents" every year over pollution, as well as issues like corruption, the Shifang uprising captured national attention and was widely discussed on popular microblogs with little apparent censorship.
"This issue has really struck a chord with people," said one China-based Western diplomat, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity.
"It's a perception problem more than anything, a lack of trust in the government. There's not enough information," the diplomat added. "This was a project, after all, which had been approved by the environmental authorities."
The unrest sparked by the government's plans to allow construction of the plant was the latest instance of public protests blocking industrial expansion because of environmental concerns.
Shanghai-listed Sichuan Hongda, one of China's biggest zinc and lead producers, issued a statement after the protests, maintaining that it was a government-approved project with the highest environmental standards.
"The project would have an important boosting effect for fiscal revenue, promoting employment and improving people's livelihood," it said in a statement to the Shanghai stock exchange.
Many of the residents of the villages that surround Shifang and who live cheek-by-jowl with the existing factory where the new plant was to be built, said it was the government's unwillingness to explain the plans that sparked their fury.
"We don't oppose the government, but they must explain the risks involved in a project like this, and they didn't. Their publicity efforts were not good enough," said Zeng Susen, who runs a small guest house and restaurant.
"The government keeps talking about resolving livelihood problems, but they have to start doing so at the grassroots," added Zeng, who relies on tourists visiting the pleasantly pastoral region.
Hongda's Shifang plant, which makes assorted chemical products, including phosphates to be used in fertilizers as well as hydrochloric acid, is a grim-looking collection of buildings nestling under the mountains to the north of the city.
Huge, gray slag heaps are piled up between a dusty side road and a large river, smelling faintly metallic and providing a stark, moon-like landscape contrast with the verdant fields nearby.
According to the International Finance Corp, an arm of the World Bank, copper smelting and refining can produce mercury, sulphur dioxide, arsenic and other pollutants.
If the new plant were to be built, such pollutants could be dispersed into the air or flow into the river, poisoning drinking supplies and arable land, residents said.
China's stability-obsessed leadership has vowed to clean up the country's hazy skies and dank waterways, and increasingly tries to appear responsive to complaints about pollution.
But environmental disputes pit citizens against local officials whose aim is to lure fresh investment and revenue into their areas, and whose performance and pay is often linked to their ability to do so.
Shifang, a pleasant low-rise city an hour by car from the teeming provincial capital Chengdu, is a tourist attraction. The city is also building an industrial zone, with help from Beijing.
Large propaganda signs dot the mostly empty industrial zone, promising to build a "low carbon, environmentally friendly" business park, exhorting people to "follow the party's lead to development".
People say they understand the need for jobs, and are genuinely thankful for government money for rebuilding after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which left more than 87,000 people dead or missing and millions homeless.
What upsets them, they say, is the perceived arrogance of the Shifang authorities in ramming through a project without proper consultation.
"The time has passed when you can simply move into an area without any public participation. But currently very few channels exist for such robust negotiations to happen among stakeholders," said Ma Tianjie of Greenpeace China.
"And the lack of such channels leads to such confrontations and a zero-sum game: either you build the project, or not," Ma added. "When you don't allow negotiation, you actually reduce the number of viable options on the table and get cornered into a polarized debate."
Even state media has weighed in on the case.
The Global Times, a widely read and influential tabloid published by Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, wrote in an editorial on Friday that authorities needed to stop riding roughshod over people's concerns.
"The hasty approval process, as well as lack of thorough communication with the public, deserves thorough reflection from the government," it said.
The Shifang protests were initially organized online by students.
One of them, who asked to be identified only by his family name Chen, said the students were galvanized after word spread online that the government was trying to sneak the project past people without consulting them.
"Even before they had broken ground last month, calls were already circulating on the Internet for big protests," he told Reuters.
"Our trust in the government is very low," he added. "After such a big event, they haven't even gotten rid of the city's party boss. We think the government is just pumping out the same old pleasantries."
While the government has already released most of those it detained for the unrest, and quickly cleared up any sign of damage in the city, Chen frets that more trouble could lie ahead.
"We're not only worried they'll keep building it, we're also concerned the government will settle its accounts (with the protest organizers) once the dust has settled."
In one of the villages nestled next to Hongda's Shifang plant, complaints about pollution are nothing new. Residents say maize and vegetables are stunted and water is polluted, and lay the blame squarely at that plant.
A peeling notice glued to a house wall provides a telephone number for Shifang's environmental protection bureau, and asks villagers to "legally and rationally find a reasoned solution" if the pollution persists.
Calls to that number by Reuters were answered by a man who said he no longer worked for the environmental bureau, and then hung up.
The government says it does try to help.
"I do not know the pollution case you mentioned, but if their concerns and opinions are expressed by legal ways, we always try to sort them out," Chen Lin, the city's deputy propaganda chief, told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Sally Huang in BEIJING; Editing by Ken Wills and Raju Gopalakrishnan)