QIDONG, China, July 28 (Reuters) – Angry demonstrators occupied a government office in eastern China on Saturday, destroying computers and overturning cars in a violent protest against an industrial waste pipeline they said would poison their coastal waters.
The demonstration was the latest in a string of protests sparked by fears of environmental degradation and highlights the social tensions the government in Beijing faces as it approaches a leadership transition this year.
About 1,000 protesters marched through the coastal city of Qidong, about one hour north of Shanghai by car, shouting slogans against the plan pipeline that would empty waste from a paper factory in a nearby town into the sea.
Demonstrators rejected the government’s stand that waste from the factory would not pollute the coastal waters.
“The government says the waste will not pollute the sea, but if that’s true, then why don’t they dump it into Yangtze River?” said Lu Shuai, a 25-year-old protester who works in logistics.
“It is because if they dump it into the river, it will have an impact on people in Shanghai and people in Shanghai will oppose it.”
Several protesters entered the city government’s main building and were seen smashing computers, overturning desks and throwing documents out the windows to loud cheers from the crowd.
Reuters witnessed five cars and one minibus being overturned. Over 1,000 police – some paramilitary – guarded the city government office compound in lines.
At least two police officers were dragged into the crowd at the government office and punched and beaten enough to make them bleed.
On Friday, in an effort to stave off the protest, the Qidong city government announced it would suspend the project for further research.
But many protesters said on Saturday that postponement was not enough.
“If the government really wanted to stop this project, they should have done it right from the beginning. At this point they are too late,” said Xi Feng, a 17-year-old protester.
Local officials took steps to ward off the demonstration and residents received text messages and letters warning that any public demonstration would be illegal.
Environmental worries have stoked calls for expanded rights for citizens and greater consultation in the tightly controlled one-party state.
The outpouring of public anger is emblematic of the rising discontent facing Chinese leaders, who are obsessed with maintaining stability and struggling to balance growth with rising public anger over environmental threats.
The protest followed similar demonstrations against projects the Sichuan town of Shifang earlier this month and in the cities of Dalian in the northeast and Haimen in southern Guangdong province in the past year.
In Shifang, the government halted construction of a copper refinery following protests by residents that it would poison them. It also freed most of the people who were detained after a clash with police.
The leadership has vowed to clean up China’s skies and waterways and increasingly tried 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. (Additional reporting by Carlos Barria; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)