Residents of Liantang village in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have submitted a mass petition to the authorities calling for a probe into what they say is the illegal sale of their land and for the replacement of the village committee.
Villagers presented a banner to the village committee signed by 10,000 local people, calling for an investigation into the sale of local farmland and for the committee members to resign to pave the way for free elections to choose a new panel.
"We have written a protest letter signed by more than 10,000 people," a village activist surnamed Lin said on Tuesday. "We want more than anything to draw people's attention to this problem, to the plight of the ordinary people."
"They sold off our land to private ownership for about 200 million yuan (U.S. $32 million)," he said. "But we don't know why it is that to this day, we haven't seen any of that money."
"We villagers never got our share," he said.
Last week, several hundred residents protested demanding elections to replace Liantang's newly appointed village committee following clashes with local officials last month.
Local leaders had asked residents to nominate new village committee members following the clashes but largely did not take into consideration their proposals, residents said.
The authorities announced this month a list of 15 new committee members containing few of the names residents had put forward, triggering the demands for elections.
Lin said the village committee had sold off more than 2,000 mu (133 hectares) of farmland to build a distribution and logistics center to serve ports around nearby Shantou city.
"They have started leveling some of the hills, and changed the land use from farmland to commercial land," Lin said. "They never consulted the villagers about this."
A second villager, also surnamed Lin, said villagers hadn't found out about the land deals until they were leaked from village committee members via friends and relatives.
He said the government had promised to send a team to investigate the allegations, but said he suspected that powerful vested interests would prevail.
"This land sale would never have happened without someone powerful backing it," Lin said. "We'll see what they come up with, and if we don't get a satisfactory response, we'll see about some more protest actions."
'Getting pretty serious'
A third Liantang resident said villagers were worried that the investigation team were in league with local officials.
"We villagers are worried that [they] are all on the same side," he said, adding that China's tightly controlled media had stayed away from the dispute.
"Our domestic media doesn't dare to report this," he said.
He said photos uploaded by villagers of recent protests to the Internet had been deleted by online censors. "A lot of them were deleted from our domestic service, Sina," he added.
"You can't see them any more, so you can see that the situation's getting pretty serious."
The eastern part of Guangdong province is no stranger to fierce disputes over the sale of farmland, as cash-strapped local governments seek to make a killing out of skyrocketing property prices.
In September 2011, the village of Wukan near Shanwei city stunned officials with a highly organized and orderly anti-corruption protest by more than 3,000 villagers wielding colorful banners outside government offices.
However, one year after the rebel succeeded in throwing out its officials, its newly elected committee has been hamstrung in its attempts to return to residents farmland sold to developers by a corrupt village chief.
In particular, the democratically elected former protest leaders have found it hard going to retrieve land from powerful corporations linked to the previous village secretaries of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
In China, all land is ultimately owned by the state, but is allocated to rural communities under collective contract and through the household responsibility system that replaced the state-run farms and communes of the Mao era.
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.
The return of farmland to protesters in such cases is extremely rare.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.