HONG KONG—Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have detained six people, and five others are hospitalized, after clashes between police and villagers trying to prevent the demolition of ancestral burial sites.
Residents of Shidong township in Guangdong's Huaiji county said they were surprised by the sudden arrival of police in their village on New Year's Eve as part of a campaign by the county government to demolish what it says are illegal grave sites.
"More than a dozen police vehicles came here," said one Shidong resident surnamed Chen.
"The police were all decked out in military gear, with bullet-proof vests and helmets, and they started beating up the villagers with their batons," he said.
"They also used tear gas."
Another villager surnamed Liu said the authorities appeared uninterested in how long the graves had been there, and were about to demolish them all with bulldozers when local residents intervened, sparking clashes.
He said several villagers were injured during the violence, with five people still in hospital with severe injuries.
"They even wanted to dig up the graves of people who had been buried for more than a year," Liu said.
"That's why the clashes happened."
He said more than 20 people were injured, five of them severely.
"Five people were seriously hurt, with injuries to the head and chest," he said.
"They detained more than a dozen people, then let some of them out. Six people are still being held," Liu added.
Liu said the authorities were seen as using the demolition of "illegal" grave sites as an excuse to begin taking over more of the villagers' land for commercial development.
"There is probably a commercial motive here. They want to develop the land," he said.
"But the villagers' ancestors are buried in that land. How are they going to agree to it being developed?"
The deputy director of the Shidong township petitions and complaints department's office of social stability, surnamed Liang, denied any commercial motivation for the demolition plans.
He said the villagers had ignored government regulations banning new burial sites, which took effect in 2000, despite repeated requests to stop the practice.
He said the recent government campaign aimed to exhume the bodies and take them to be cremated instead, but that it had run into problems after local residents attacked workers.
"There were just over 20 of us who went over [to Shidong township] that day," Liang said. "We were surrounded by 70 or 80 villagers who refused to allow us to leave.
"They were carrying hatchets and clubs. The police sent 30 or 40 people to escort us to safety."
He confirmed that authorities had used teargas in the clashes, adding that there were people injured on both sides.
He said six people had been detained for "obstructing official business."
Often visited at festivals during the Chinese lunar calendar, family grave sites form an important part of ancestor rituals linked to Confucian values of filial piety and represent strong ties to the ancestral homeland sometimes dating back centuries.
Similar disputes have flared in other parts of China, with villagers voicing angry complaints at government interference in an age-old custom, which requires bodily integrity for transition to the next world.
China’s countryside has seen a wave of bitter land disputes in recent years between farming communities and local officials keen to cash in on skyrocketing property values.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Grace Kei Lai-see. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.