BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese protesters set fire to factory buildings and police cars in a clash sparked by toxic waste, police and residents said on Monday, the latest illustration of a growing wave of public dissent.
Saturday's violence at the Tian Neng Battery Co. was also the third protest in the eastern province of Zhejiang in recent months caused by pollution, highlighting the environmental price of China's rise to become the world's seventh-largest economy.
"It's very serious. There was a clash between protesters and the police. Some people were injured," said an employee of the post office in the county of Meishan who declined to be identified.
"Some children died of lead pollution and the demonstration might have been initiated by the parents."
Calls to the factory went unanswered and an official at the county government said he had not heard of any violence.
But a police officer in Meishan acknowledged there had been a protest, saying police had rushed to the scene to maintain order. She refused to give further details.
Residents said children were falling ill from high levels of lead that had poisoned water and vegetables in several villages in the area.
"A lot of children in our area have too much lead in their bodies and it will greatly affect their growth," said a receptionist at a Meishan hotel surnamed Han.
"People burned the factory. The office building, workshops, and the factory's products were all set on fire," she said.
Four police cars had also been set alight, she said, adding there was heavy security presence in the area and police were rounding up suspects.
Protests in China are becoming increasingly common despite Communist leaders' obsession with maintaining stability, triggered by factors from pollution and corruption to a growing gap between rich and poor.
The Ministry of Public Security has been quoted as saying there were more than 74,000 protests last year alone and the government has warned the wealth gap could be the cause of yet more unrest if no action is taken to narrow the difference.
A team from the Ministry of Labour and Social Security found the wealth gap had been widening since 2003 despite measures to increase incomes among the rural poor, including scrapping agricultural taxes, the China Daily newspaper said on Monday.
"We are going to hit the red-light scenario after 2010 if there are no effective solutions," the newspaper quoted ministry researcher Su Hainan as saying.
Although China is the world's fastest-growing major economy, the ministry team found rural incomes last year averaged only about $355, less than a third of urban incomes. The Ministry of Civil Affairs has said some 26 million rural Chinese live in absolute poverty, earning less than $80 a year.
"The government's top priority is to make those farmers still in poverty earn more," the report said.