A land protester detained in the southern Chinese province of Guandong has died in police custody, villagers said, following clashes with riot police who used tear gas to disperse angry crowds over the weekend.
Xue Jinbo, in his forties, "fell ill" late on Sunday, his third day in detention, officials in the nearby city of Shanwei, said.
Xue was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. A representative of local farmers in the land dispute, he had been detained for inciting the villagers to protest, residents said.
"One of the villagers, Xue Jinbo, was beaten to death by them," said a resident of Wukan village, at the heart of the dispute, surnamed Li. "He was only 40 years old."
Li said four other representatives had been detained alongside Xue.
"They were beaten up until they were crippled by the police," he said. "They were all forced to sign confessions saying that they had conspired with foreign enemy forces to incite the villagers to come out in protest."
"All they wanted to do was speak out for the villagers," Li said.
Local people said they didn't believe the government's account of Xue's death.
"One of our representatives who was detained by the police was beaten to death," said one woman who declined to be named.
"I don't believe [he was ill]," she said. "His health was pretty good."
On the microblogging site Xinlang Weibo, local netizens said Xue’s family members saw bruises on the front and back of his body.
Another post disclosed that villager Zeng Zhaoliang was in critical condition in police custody. The post said Zeng had also been in good health before being detained.
Clashes continued over the weekend as riot police moved in to disperse protesters, who have been calling for local elections and the removal of their village leader amid a longstanding dispute over the sale of hundreds of hectares of farmland.
"The scene was very chaotic," Li said. "More than 1,000 armed police ... entered the village very quietly at about 4:00 a.m. [on Sunday]."
"They used tear gas and water cannon."
"There was thick smoke everywhere. The explosion of the tear gas canisters set fire to the fields, and there was a big fire," he added.
"Local people couldn't see where they were going."
A second resident of Wukan village, which lies between Shanwei and Lufeng cities in the eastern part of Guandong, said police had now sealed off all major intersections in the area.
"No one is being allowed through on any of the roads in Wukan village today," a resident surnamed Yang said on Monday.
"There are people and police at every intersection," she said. "The villagers can't get out to buy groceries."
"The villagers think that there is too much official corruption; the corruption is horrifying," she added.
'A war zone'
Police raids have continued on the village for the past week, with patrol cars dragging people in for questioning in the middle of the night, villagers said.
Cable television footage showed some residents building makeshift nail barriers on roads and digging trenches to impede police cars.
Local people hung pieces of white cloth outside the village Party committee on Monday in honor of Xue.
Calls to nearby Lufeng municipal government and Donghai township government went unanswered during office hours on Monday.
An officer who answered the phone at the Lufeng municipal police department said he was unable to answer press enquiries because he was unable to confirm reporters' identities over the phone.
"A lot of people are telling us lies right now, and things are very chaotic here in Wukan village," said a third Wukan resident, who declined to be named.
"It's mayhem here," he said. "Like a war zone."
"We can't get through a single day in peace now," the villager said. "The rice [supplies] can't get through. They are checking all the boats."
"Things are very hard for us right now," he said.
Posts on popular microblogging services from Wukan villagers also reported blocked rice deliveries.
"We will not surrender to this bunch of corrupt officials," said one post. "We will use our fists to defend our homes if we have to!"
Local media reports said police had been sent to Wukan village and had left by Monday after clearing the roads.
Police threw a security cordon around Wukan last week, following several weeks of highly organized and vocal demonstrations against government sales of local land and allegations of official corruption.
Thousands of villagers protested in Donghai township, near Guangdong's Lufeng city last month, complaining about abuse of power by local officials and calling for fair elections.
Wukan's farming community says it wants action taken over alleged corruption and abuse of power by the village Communist party chief Xue Chang, who has occupied the post for more than 40 years.
They accuse him and other local officials of ballot-rigging so as to ensure grass-roots candidates can never win an election against him.
They said the committee has sold off large tracts of arable land in recent years, but that local residents have never benefited from these secret deals, which eventually led to the pollution of a local harbor, a lifeline for many fishing families.
Villagers have marched in recent protests carrying placards reading "Give me back my human rights" and "Against dictatorship."
They are calling on the government to return their farmland and to implement local village elections.
China already sees thousands of "mass incidents" across the country every year, according to official statistics, many of which are protests or sit-ins linked to forced evictions, allegations of corruption, and disputes over rural land sales.
Land acquisition for development, often resulting in lucrative property deals for local officials, sparks thousands of protests by local communities across China every month, many of which escalate into clashes with police.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie and Ping Chen. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.