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Chinese pollution protesters turn violent in clash with police

A demonstrator smashes a car window during a protest against an industrial waste pipeline under construction in front of the local government building in Qidong, Jiangsu Province on Saturday.
A demonstrator smashes a car window during a protest against an industrial waste pipeline under construction in front of the local government building in Qidong, Jiangsu Province on Saturday.Carlos Barria / Reuters

QIDONG, China -- 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.

Hours later, the mayor of the city where the pipeline was to have originated said the project was being cancelled, Reuters reported.

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.

Thousands of protesters marched through the coastal city of Qidong, roughly one hour north of Shanghai by car, shouting slogans against the planned pipeline that would empty waste from a paper factory in nearby Nantong into the sea.

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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."

The state-run Global Times newspaper quoted local residents who said the sewage discharge from the pipeline was expected to be as much as 150,000 tons per day, according to the AFP news agency.

Cars overturned, cops beaten
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.

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An AFP photographer described the scene, saying demonstrators seized bottles of liquor and wine from the offices, along with cartons of cigarettes -- all of which Chinese officials frequently receive as bribes.

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.

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According to the AFP, searches including "Qidong" on China's popular microblogging site Sina Weibo were blocked Saturday. Sina Weibo has over 250 million subscribers.

Earlier posts on Weibo and on Twitter indicated that the protesters had stripped the clothes off the local party secretary, but these reports could not be immediately verified.

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.

The reversal came Saturday afternoon, when Nantong Mayor Zhang Guohua announced in a statement that the city would terminate the project proposed by a Japanese-owned paper factory in its jurisdiction. 

Rising discontent
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.

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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.

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Pictures from China on's PhotoBlog

NBC News researcher Tianzhou Ye, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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