Violent conflicts over farmland like last weekend's clashes in Shangpu village, Guangdong, are the result of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's program of 'relentless urbanization' and are unlikely to result in victory for rural communities, analysts said.
Dozens of protesters in the southern province remained in hospital on Monday following clashes with armed police who fired tear gas and beat protesters on Sunday amid a bitter dispute over the sale of farmland by local government.
Five people were detained, while Shangpu village committee chief Li Baoyu is currently under "criminal detention" after being accused by villagers of brokering a deal to lease around 33 hectares (82 acres) of rice paddy to electronics company Wan Feng without giving most residents a chance to object.
"The clashes with local people often have to do with the finances of land deals, because they are taking people's land forcibly away from them," said professor Xia Ming, a political science teacher at the College of Staten Island in New York.
Xia said that rapid urbanization is continuing apace in China, and had become a hot political topic at this year's annual parliamentary session, although the hand-picked delegates are unlikely to try to act independently on the issue.
"The cities are forever expanding and swallowing up the farmland around them," he said. "From a certain political point of view, you could see it as a form of colonization."
Shangpu residents told Reuters that a large contingent of riot police and other security personnel moved into their village early on Sunday morning, and began firing tear gas and beating villagers with truncheons.
Gongs were sounded and hundreds of villagers charged out to help those being beaten but were forced back by some 3,000 security personnel and volleys of teargas, the agency said.
U.S.-based rights activist Liu Nianchun said the authorities were likely holding Li in a bid to calm popular anger for the duration of the annual National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing.
"Of course they are keen to keep things quiet," Liu said.
"Once they have things under control, then the simplest thing to do is start detaining all the villagers," he added.
The NPC is widely seen as a “rubber stamp” whose hand-picked members do the bidding of the ruling party. Chinese leaders have repeatedly ruled out Western-style democracy for the country.
An officer who answered the phone at a nearby police department didn't deny the incident. "Uhuh," he said when asked to confirm reports of villagers overturning vehicles.
But he declined to comment further. "If you want to know the details you should come over here yourself," he said.
A Shangpu resident who asked to remain anonymous said there had been 3,000 police sent to the village on Sunday, and that the electricity supply to Shangpu had been cut off.
"They were beating up the villagers," he said. "Most of those injured were elderly people, and they're now in the hospital."
"They detained people, too: five old people."
Photos posted online showed large white clouds of smoke and spent canisters of tear gas that were fired at the crowd, as well as protesters with injuries to their bodies.
An official who answered the phone at the township government offices declined to comment.
"I have just arrived at work, so I have no idea about this yet, and my bosses aren't here," he said.
Move to suppress
Like land protesters in the rebel village of Wukan in 2011, Shangpu villagers are calling for democratic elections to replace Li Baoyu, who police said last week was being held under criminal detention on suspicion of "attacking the people."
But Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling said the Shangpu campaign lacked the size and public exposure of the Wukan protests, and that suppression was still an easier option for the government than negotiation.
"If the authorities can suppress a rights protest at a fairly low cost to themselves, then they are going to choose that road in the majority of cases," Tang said.
He said the fact that journalists had managed to cover the Wukan campaign in some depth had added to its weight.
"This has a lot to do with whether the media is on the scene," Tang said. "If there are a lot of journalists present, this will make the outside world pay attention, so the government won't make any move."
"In cases where there aren't many journalists, they can just use force to put down [such protests]."
While China has compensation rules for farmland based on the expected yield of a piece of land, villagers often complain that they never see the money, which is appropriated by village committee members for their own ends.
Shangpu villagers fear the same thing will happen to them, adding that the market value of the land lease is far above the price of the rice that could be grown on it.
Reported by Yang Jiadai and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.