Hong Kong/Beijing: A man accused of taking part in a riot over land grabs in a southern Chinese village has died in police custody, threatening to fan tension in a small pocket of export-dependent Guangdong province that has become a source of persistent unrest.
The man died as riot police moved to quell a longstanding dispute in Wukan village on the coast of the booming province and economic powerhouse, where commercial and industrial development has consumed swathes of rice paddies.
Villagers claim hundreds of hectares have been acquired unfairly by corrupt officials in collusion with powerful developers over the past few years.
The government in Shanwei, an area that includes Wukan in its jurisdiction, said that Xue Jinbo fell ill Sunday, his third day in detention over the riot. Hospital doctors later pronounced him dead.
In an apparent effort to head off further trouble in the area that saw hundreds of riot police fire tear gas to dispel protesting, rock-pelting villagers Sunday, officials immediately notified Xue`s family and offered aid.
"The cause of death was cardiac failure, and other causes of death have been provisionally ruled out," said the notice on the Shanwei government website (www.shanwei.gov.cn), citing doctors.
The death in custody nonetheless threatens to stir fresh tensions and has already generated an angry Internet backlash.
"We`re very pained and angry at his death," said one villager who declined to be named given the fear of reprisals by authorities. "He didn`t commit any crime. He was just a negotiator speaking with the government, trying to get our land back. He was defending farmers` rights."
Though China`s Communist Party has ruled over decades of economic growth that have shielded it from challenges to its power, the country is confronted by thousands of smaller scale protests and riots every year that chip away at party authority at the grassroots, where discontent is often fed by land and property disputes.
One expert on unrest, Sun Liping of Beijing`s Tsinghua University, has estimated that there could have been over 180,000 such "mass incidents" in 2010, but most estimates from Chinese academics and government experts put recent numbers at about 90,000 annually in 2009 and 2010.
The government has not given any statistics.
"This must be thoroughly investigated"
In any case, the real worry for Chinese authorities is not the number of such protests, but their tendency to become more persistent and organized -- as in the unrest in Wukan village, which has persisted over months.
The death in custody drew condemnation from commentators critical of heavy-handed government responses to protest.
Xiao Shu, a former commentator for the Southern Weekend, a popular Guangdong newspaper, demanded a probe into the death of Xue, reportedly one of the organizers of a village assembly that the government declared illegal.
"This case must be thoroughly investigated, and the media and lawyers must be allowed to participate," wrote Xiao Shu.
Pictures on microblogging sites from Wukan Sunday showed large numbers of riot police standing off with thousands of residents, some armed with sticks and spades, who are demanding the return of farmland to restore their livelihoods.
Monday, the mood remained tense.
Village witnesses said hundreds of riot police remained stationed on the perimeter of the village, blocking almost all people and vehicles from entering or leaving. Some villagers said food supplies to the area had also been cut.
Authorities have also been making aggressive, nocturnal sweeps of Wukan over the past week, arriving in vehicles with sirens wailing, witnesses said, rousing the entire village, dragging citizens from bed and interrogating them.
"They are intimidating us, trying to scare us," said another villager by telephone from Wukan. "No one dares go out. People aren`t working. Youngsters don`t want to get arrested so they stay indoors and children aren`t going to school."
In November, Guangdong`s high-flying Party leader, Wang Yang, due for promotion to leadership ranks next year, stressed a need to be more proactive in addressing grassroots conflicts.
Villagers contacted by news ageny pledged to keep fighting, while appealing to Wang and the Central government in Beijing to intervene and fully investigate the alleged land grabs.