HONG KONG — Five days after an environmental protest turned violent in the Southern Chinese province of Guangdong, accounts of the events remain contradictory. What witnesses saw and posted online is starkly different from what authorities say happened.
Residents in Maoming, a coastal town about 300 kilometers South of Guangzhou, took to the streets to protest a planned chemical plant they say will harm the environment and feed corruption.
While their demands seem clear, there are many unanswered questions about what really happened after the march of more than 1,000 people turned violent last Sunday (March 30).
Accounts online say police used disproportionate force and beat some protesters to death. The government says it acted to safeguard public order and prevent the situation from worsening. Authorities also denied any deaths.
Ying Jiang is a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Adelaide where she researches Social Media in China.
She says the incident highlights how fractured media in China can be.
"There are two different Chinas, one is the China who lives on social media, the other one is central official state media," she said.
Pictures uploaded on Weibo, China's twitter-like service, showed injured people, including a man lying in the ground with blood on his face and clothes.
Other pictures showed tanks on the street, as well as special force police charging the crowds.
Jiang says not everything on Weibo is accurate, but distrust against the government and official media makes people more likely to believe the worst.
"If it is a rumor, it still has the grounds or the basis for people to believe in this rumor," she said. Because people don't trust the government and just assume that this kind of thing would happen."
Yang Zhihui, an eyewitness reached by phone by VOA, says he ran into the protests after accompanying his wife to a nearby government office, where she was due to take an exam.
While waiting for his wife he saw some protesters becoming increasingly confrontational.
"There were a few students, young people probably in their twenties," he said. "They went to buy eggs and started throwing them towards the armed police. Then they began throwing bottles of water. This went on for about 20 minutes and then the police charged on and started beating people."
Yang says he saw at least three people being beaten unconscious. "I saw it with my own eyes," he said. "In one case a man was beaten and there was a lot of blood. He had been beaten so much that his head was almost cracked. He was not moving and the police would not let us near him."
Chinese media are effectively banned on reporting independently about sensitive events such as protests.
Newspapers based in Hong Kong have reported that after the clashes, authorities sealed off Maoming, and have requested that journalists show special permits if they want to enter the city.
On Thursday, the official People's Daily published an account debunking online rumors.
The article said reports by Hong Kong media that the protest led to 15 deaths and 300 people injured were false. It also said the suggestion that the army had intervened was false.
People's Daily reported the picture of tanks that made the rounds online was in fact years old and shot during regular military drills.
Li Xigen, a professor of media and communication at City University of Hong Kong, says, "They want to portray some kind of picture that it is not a big problem, everything is under control. That is the guideline for the state media to deal with this kind of issue."
On Thursday, four days after the clashes, the government held a news conference with selected media.
The local deputy security chief admitted that because of the chaos at the scene, police had accidentally injured some protesters. He denied reports of deaths but said that 15 people had been hospitalized, four of whom are policemen.
At the news conference, the deputy mayor said that the government will listen to the people's suggestions in deciding the future of the PX plant against which people protested.
Li Xigen says that the government has realized that online voices can become louder then the voice of officials.
"They learned that from many other incidents, the hard way, so now they changed the strategy, they turn to that platform to try their own voice to be heard," he said.
Yang Zhihui, the man who witnessed the protest on Sunday, says he does not trust what local officials are saying. He says the central government should make an inquiry on what happened.