By John Ruwitch
QIDONG, China (Reuters) - Chinese officials canceled an industrial waste pipeline project on Saturday after anti-pollution demonstrators occupied a government office in eastern China, destroying computers and overturning cars.
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.
It was also the second cancellation of an industrial project this month, as officials buckle under pressure from protests.
Zhang Guohua, city mayor of the eastern China city of Nantong, said in a statement the city would terminate the planned pipeline that would have emptied waste water from a Japanese-owned paper factory into the sea near Qidong.
The decision came hours after about 1,000 protesters marched through the city of Qidong, about one hour north of Shanghai, shouting slogans against the pipeline.
"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?" Lu Shuai, a 25-year-old protester who works in logistics, said while marching.
"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 where they smashed computers, overturned desks and threw documents out the windows to loud cheers from the crowd. Reuters witnessed five cars and one minibus being overturned.
At least two police officers were dragged into the crowd at the government office and punched and beaten enough to make them bleed.
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.
Such protests "suggest that the middle class, whose members seemed willing to accept in the 1990s that being able to buy more things equaled having a better life, is now wondering whether one's quality of life has improved, if you have to worry about breathing the air, drinking the water, and whether the food you're eating is safe," said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, of the University of California Irvine.
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.
"We are aware of the Shifang experience, and if it worked there then it may work here. We have a responsibility to protect our home," said one student who declined to be named because he said the government had threatened retribution against anyone who spoke to the media.
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 Nick Macfie)