Clashes broke out between police and residents in a forced eviction standoff in Lianyungang city in northeastern Jiangsu province on Friday after an evictee died, according to officials and local residents.
The standoff began after hundreds of demolition workers approached the home of Shizhuang village resident Liu Zengluo early Friday, relatives and local residents said.
Liu died after confronting the demolition gang, but the official version of his death and those of his relatives differed sharply.
"They want to take the body away to carry out tests," said one of Liu Zengluo's relatives, currently refusing to leave the family home, which has been slated for demolition in a months-old dispute between officials and residents.
"I did not agree to that," the relative said, but declined to comment further.
One eyewitness in the crowd outside the apartment block, a woman surnamed Liu, said the dead man's brother had told the crowd gathered outside his home that his brother was beaten to death and burned as a way of disguising his injuries.
"Liu Zengluo's brother told us that [his brother] had been beaten to death and his body burned," she said.
But the county government described the incident as a "case of unusual death" in a statement on its website on Friday afternoon.
"Workers from Shizhuang villagers went to ... prepare for the demolition of the second-floor apartment in an illegal building where Liu Zengluo was staying," it said.
"Liu Zengluo set light to some gasoline in the apartment and died at the scene," the statement said. "His wife sustained minor injuries for which she is receiving treatment, and is not in danger."
Some local residents said they had heard that the demolition gang tried to burn Liu Zengluo's body using domestic cooking gas, but the canister exploded.
RFA was unable to verify this version of events, however.
Ms. Liu said the dead man's brother had refused to let police take the body, apparently for fear of losing evidence to back up his claims that his brother was beaten to death before being burned.
"The body [was] still lying there on the ground, and the riot police wanted to come and snatch it away," Ms. Liu said.
"Now things have got a bit more serious, and there are a lot of police there now; the place is totally packed with people and the police have formed a human wall around the scene."
"There is a huge crowd there, maybe several thousand," Ms. Liu added.
A second resident, Liu Jinyang, said the incident had flared up rapidly.
"It was just a normal working day, but now things are getting more and more serious," he said. "This eviction attempt involves around 300 households."
He said Liu Zengluo's home was only one of many owned by his extended family and since slated for demolition by the government to make way for redevelopment.
"There are probably around 15 families left now," Liu Jinyang said. "I had a few clashes with the demolition gangs myself, and I was detained several times."
"These demolition gangs have turned into a sort of super-bin Laden, worse than the Japanese invasion, worse than the Nazis, a sort of super-mafia," he said.
Large police presence
A local resident surnamed Chen confirmed there were large numbers of police at the scene.
"There are thousands and thousands of people there," Chen said. "There are a lot of plainclothes police as well as uniformed police, and a lot of bystanders."
Another resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said the crowds were apparently stopping the police from removing Liu Zengluo's body.
"His relatives are all inside the house—the married couple and their six-year-old son," he said. "They have been sitting there for four days straight because of the forced demolition."
Calls to the village government offices went unanswered during office hours on Friday.
An official who answered the phone at the Guanyun county government declined to give details of the incident.
"I have only heard about this incident," the official said. "Probably the county governor has gone over there."
"I am not one of the people dealing with this matter," he said. "You can't just say this is a forced eviction because you're not even there on the scene."
"This will have to wait for the police [investigation]."
In March, authorities in Changchun city, in northeastern Jilin province, detained the manager of a demolition company after a 50-year-old protester was crushed during demolitions of residential buildings.
Private property enjoys theoretical protection under China's Constitution, but the ultimate ownership of land in China still rests with the state.
Residents often complain that existing leasehold contracts are flouted by local officials and developers keen to swell revenue coffers with lucrative land deals.
China already sees thousands of "mass incidents" across the country every year, according to official statistics, many of which are protests or sit-ins linked to forced evictions, allegations of corruption, and disputes over rural land sales.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.