Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang are investigating the brutal beating of five urban management officials by an angry crowd after reports said the officials beat a citizen journalist to death, sparking violent protests and clashes with police over the weekend.
"The police are investigating and dealing with the incident," an official who answered the phone at the Lingxi township government in Cangnan told RFA on Monday. "But I don't know about the details."
Around 1,000 people gathered in Cangnan county near Zhejiang's coastal city of Wenzhou on Saturday in a violent response to reports that China's notorious urban management officials, or chengguan, had beaten a citizen journalist to death for taking photos of their behavior towards a female street vendor, local media reported.
Online reports had accused the chengguan, who have been linked to a number of brutal attacks and deaths of street vendors in the past, of hitting the man with a hammer until he began to cough up blood after he persisted in photographing them.
A crowd gathered at the scene, surrounding the chengguan and shouting "Kill them! Kill them!"
The men took refuge in a van, which was smashed in by the crowd, who then set about the chengguan officers, local media and eyewitnesses reported.
The violence began outside a farmers' market in Cangnan county's Linxi township at around 4.00 p.m. local time on Saturday, according to an eyewitness who gave only his surname, Chen.
"When I went outside, I saw two or three people all beating up a single person with their fists," he said.
"The person being beaten was squatting down on the ground, and then he began to vomit up blood, and his face turned very pale."
"Everyone who saw it was saying that they'd beaten him to death," Chen said.
He said the mood among bystanders quickly soured, and before long, "several thousand" people had materialized at the scene, surrounding the chengguan in their minibus.
Cangnan resident Tang Shujiao identified the citizen journalist as her uncle Huang Xiangba, but said the incident had already brought her huge pressure from the authorities, and declined to comment on his fate.
"Now suddenly I'm supposed to be criminally responsible," Tang said in an interview on Monday. "I can't really answer your questions because some things are making me really scared."
"I feel very low about this, but I still can't answer your questions," she said. "Everything was fine, but now they are making this out to be a major problem for me."
After Huang's beating, the enraged crowd smashed in the windows of the minibus and threw bricks into the vehicle, while others dragged them out of the bus and beat them until the blood flowed, Chen said.
He said police arrived and tried to rescue the chengguan, but were themselves quickly set upon by the angry crowd.
"The five people were surrounded by local people, who climbed in there, breaking the glass and chucking rocks at the people inside, who were injured and bleeding," Chen said.
"Then the armed police showed up, and the people started throwing stones at them, too, and about 20 to 30 police just ran away."
Later, several hundred riot police arrived and fired around a dozen rounds of tear gas at the crowd, Chen said, before forming a protective wall around the minibus and rescuing the chengguan, who were taken to hospital.
"Two minibuses belonging to the chengguan were overturned, and the windows of the ambulance that came to get them were smashed," Chen said.
He said the chengguan had an unsavory reputation, and were particularly resented by local people because they were drafted in from other parts of China by the local government.
Photos circulating on the Chinese Internet on Monday showed a group of uniformed men lying slumped unconscious in a van, covered in blood.
According to a statement on the Cangnan county government's official news outlet, "two of the injured [chengguan] remained in a critical condition while a further three who suffered minor wounds received treatment."
There was no statement or information regarding Huang, however.
Chen said local news websites, which are tightly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, claimed the reports of Huang's beating were untrue.
"At the time, they said Huang was perfectly fine, that there was nothing really wrong with him, but when I saw him, he was vomiting blood," he said.
"How could there be nothing wrong with him?"
According to a 2012 report by New York-based Human Rights Watch, China's chengguan, who are often demobilized soldiers, routinely abuse their authority in their attempts to keep city streets in order and lack effective supervision, training, and discipline.
Last July, the family of a watermelon vendor beaten to death by chengguan in China's central province of Hunan was awarded 897,000 yuan (U.S. $146,000) in compensation after his death sparked widespread public anger and clashes with police.
But in September 2013, street kebab vendor Xia Junfeng was executed in the northeastern city of Shenyang for killing two chengguan officers in what he said was self-defense after they attacked him.
In October 2008, the beating of a university student by chengguan in the central city of Zhengzhou resulted in mass protests involving tens of thousands of people.
The incident followed similar protests in Hunan's Shaoyang city in May 2008 and Sichuan's Yibing city in November 2007.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.