Residents of the central city of Wuhan who are fighting eviction as houses around them have been razed to the ground said unidentified men set fire to their building in an arson attack on Wednesday.
The home of Qiaokou district resident Wu Guangying, whose last-ditch attempt to ward off the bulldozers has earned him the nickname "Red Flag Brother of Wuhan," was invaded early on Wednesday by unidentified men, prompting clashes with the family, Wu said.
The would-be evicters set fire to the building, causing severe smoke injury to Wu's younger brother, but calls to the emergency number met with no response, he said.
"This arson attack was cruel and inhumane ... the arsonists had no regard for human life or safety," Wu said. "My brother nearly died from the smoke."
"A lot of our friends and family came to support us, but they wouldn't let us in there, and when we called 110 for the police, they didn't come," he said.
He said the family had been prevented from re-entering the property, and couldn't tell what sort of state it is now in.
"They came back in the afternoon and set fire to it again," Wu said.
Photographs posted on the rights website Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch showed a residential building devastated by fire, with large numbers of local residents posing in front of a red banner that read: "We will unite behind President Xi to fight the tigers and the flies," in a reference to Xi's anti-corruption campaign.
"Uphold the law and protect the rights of citizens," the banner said.
Wu said he had received a number of phone calls from "the forces of evil" since the standoff began.
"I don't know exactly who they are, but they are basically criminal gang members sheltering behind the government," he said.
"I called the head of the ... district demolitions and evictions control center, and he said these people don't work for him; they are denying everything now," Wu said.
"But if [the arsonists] didn't have government protection, they wouldn't dare to do these things," he said. "When I called the police, they didn't come, which shows that they are all in it together."
Wu's home in Changfeng village has been encircled by bulldozers as part of a major urban regeneration project, which has been characterized by violence at the hands of government-hired thugs, fellow resident Liu Zhenmei said.
"Our lives have been made a misery by these eviction teams; they are utter bandits," Liu said. "They go round at night banging on people's doors and smashing their windows."
"When the old people sit outside chatting, they come over and say 'why are you assembling here, are you having a meeting?'"
"They tell them to sign [an eviction agreement] and they curse them, and then as soon as they sign it they go and demolish their home," she said.
Liu said police never respond to complaints when demolition gangs begin smashing people's property.
"They just say 'what can you do; there's nothing to be done about it.' They are paid by the local government, so they can't get up their noses."
"If they annoy the local government, they won't get a bonus."
Liu said the "improvement" projects in Chengzhong village have been under way for almost eight years, but that the provincial authorities have ignored petitioning attempts from largely elderly residents.
"Some of them throw themselves to the ground and cry, and kowtow to local officials, and in seven, eight years, our replacement housing hasn't appeared."
"It's very hard for us to get by [without it]."
Violent forced evictions, often resulting in deaths and injuries, continue to rise in China as cash-strapped local governments team up with development companies to grab property in a bid to boost revenue, rights groups say.
Amnesty International collected reports of 41 cases of self-immolation from 2009 to 2011 alone due to forced evictions. That compares to fewer than 10 cases reported in the entire previous decade.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.