Residents of Guangdong's rebellious Wukan village are planning further protests this week to call for a probe into alleged official corruption and the return of the body of a fellow protester, defying threats of force from officials as thousands of armed police encircle the area.
"The authorities called up Xue Jinbo's family and threatened them, telling them not to lodge a complaint," said one Wukan resident surnamed Zhang on Monday. "If they did, they would start arresting family members."
Thousands of people gathered last week in the besieged village, which lies between the cities of Lufeng and Shanwei in the eastern part of Guangdong, to mourn fellow protester Xue Jinbo who died last week in police custody.
The authorities say he died of a heart attack, but relatives who identified the body said it was covered in injuries from head to foot.
Xue's death came amid fierce clashes between police and an embattled farming community furious at alleged official corruption and the sale of its land.
Zhang said the phone call came from officials at the nearby Donghai township government.
"They won't even give back [Xue's] body, and now they're telling us not to complain."
Decision to demonstrate
In a mass meeting on Monday, villagers made a collective decision to stage a demonstration on Wednesday and march to the city government, local sources said.
"Basically the whole village is there," said a resident surnamed Chen on Monday. "There are maybe 6,000 or 7,000 people."
"They are at the main intersection."
Officials are now threatening that several thousand armed police officers now stationed in a cordon around the village, and carrying out identity checks on all those coming and leaving, are being readied for an assault on the village, according to Zhang.
Zhang said tensions were proving unbearable for many local residents caught up in the long-running dispute.
"A lot of local people are suffering from mental health problems now, as well as a lot of kids," he said. "The authorities are calling us several times a day, telling us not to petition or complain, telling us how many police are waiting to enter the village."
"These are terror tactics," Zhang said.
Repeated calls to the Donghai township government went unanswered during office hours on Monday.
The standoff in Wukan prompted widespread support from netizens, before the village and associated keywords were listed as "sensitive" and stopped showing up in search results.
Censors on the Sina and Tencent Weibo micro-blogging sites, which are very popular in China, quickly removed a video showing a demonstration by thousands of villagers in Wukan, who were filmed chanting "down with corrupt officials," and "compensation for spilled blood."
"The Chinese authorities are yet again trying to hush up a local corruption case although it has led to a man's death and has highlighted a major problem—arbitrary land seizures," Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement on Monday.
"This criminal censorship is indicative of the nervousness that the authorities feel about ... the role played by the Internet and social networks as a sounding board. They are trying to intimidate netizens and get them to censor themselves," the group said.
An activist surnamed Yu, who traveled to Wukan in a show of solidarity with local residents, said he was detained after arriving at one of the road-blocks set up by armed police.
Yu, who traveled with a group of 10 others, said he was held from Dec. 8-16, before being escorted back home to the provincial capital, Guangzhou.
"I and a lot of other netizens are being confined to our homes," Yu said. "We can't go out."
Guangzhou-based lawyer Tang Jingling was taken away by police at the weekend, his wife said.
"It's probably to do with the Wukan incident," said Tang's wife, surnamed Wang. "I called up the police station to ask, and they told me that he was being held on orders from the Guangzhou municipal police department."
"He said the case was being overseen by state security police," Wang said. "I don't know when he's coming home."
A keyword search in Chinese on the popular Sina Weibo microblog service gave the following message on Monday: "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, we were unable to display the search results for 'Wukan'."
Sina Weibo user @ershutasanjiu wrote: "I sent out so many tweets today about Wukan, but I don't think a single one will last until tomorrow."
Call for probe
Wukan residents are calling on Chinese leaders in Beijing to carry out an independent probe into allegations of corruption surrounding the sale of their farmland, for the election of local officials, and for answers about Xue's death.
Xue's death followed several weeks of highly organized and vocal demonstrations by Wukan's farming community, which 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.
The village has been besieged by security forces for more than a week after residents have fought off thousands of riot police using barricades and home-made weapons, and similar protests have erupted in nearby villages in recent days.
A resident of Shangdaimei village, also near Shanwei city, said hundreds of villagers had marched to local government offices in Xinan township on Sunday to protest the sale of their farmland.
"There were some officials from the Communist Party commission for discipline inspection who said they would come to our village, but they never came," said one protester, Lao Zhang.
"So we went to the township to protest ... We were also protesting and calling for an allocation of land," he said. "They should give it all back to the villagers."
An official who answered the phone at the Xinan township government confirmed the protest had taken place.
"There definitely weren't as many as 1,000 people," she said. "There are only a few hundred in the whole village."
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.