Authorities in northern China moved on Saturday to contain a dispute over factory job losses that sparked an unprecedented attempt by workers to mount a mass protest march on Beijing, state media said.
More than 1,000 workers were prevented on Friday from marching 140 kilometres (90 miles) to Beijing from the city of Baoding to protest the closure of their textile factory.
But on Saturday the chairwoman of the Baoding Yimian Textile Ltd's board of directors was suspended from the post and authorities launched an investigation into alleged malfeasance by the factory's Hong Kong-based owner, Xinhua news agency reported.
Employees angered by the closure of the factory, which had employeed 4,000 people, set out on bicycle and foot from Baoding in Hebei province to Beijing to present a petition to the government, a centuries-old tradition.
Workers reached by AFP complained of a factory restructuring plan that includes cutting jobs, and also said a severance offer was insufficient.
Xinhua quoted Baoding Vice Mayor Liu Baoling saying Hong Kong-based Yafang Group had vowed to invest 50 million dollars in the formerly state-owned factory when it bought it 2004, but did not keep its word.
Local authorities talked the protesters out of the march after they had gone several kilometres and provided buses to bring them back to Baoding, demonstrators said.
Zheng Ran, an official with Baoding's government, said authorities were meeting to discuss the issue, but some workers were skeptical.
"The government has now told us they will solve our problem but have given no timeframe," an employee who gave only his surname, Yang, told AFP.
"They might just be using this as a pretext to stop us going to Beijing."
Many factories in China's export-dependent economy have closed down or reduced output as worldwide consumer demand has dried up in recent months, prompting official fears of potential unrest as huge numbers of workers are laid off.
The factory's board chairwoman Wang Lijuan also was stripped of her post as its Communist Party chief, Xinhua said.
Authorities appealed to workers to be patient while it tried to sort out the matter, it added.