Updated at 11:00 a.m. EST on 2012-09-27
Police in the central Chinese province of Hubei beat to death one villager and injured two more in clashes between land protesters and officials outside county government offices, protesters said on Wednesday, while the local government said he had died of a heart attack.
"They hit the head of the local police station, so then it all kicked off," said a resident of Xingqi village in Hubei's Sui county, where local people are protesting the proposed sale of local farmland to a property developer.
"I think the police officers under the police station chief wanted to hit back on his behalf, and they beat to death one villager," said the man, who declined to be named. "After the person died, they ran away."
"One person died and two were seriously hurt," the man said.
His account corroborated previous posts to China's Tianya Blog, which said that the incident took place last Friday after local people arrived outside government offices in Sui county.
Meanwhile, a schoolteacher at the No. 1 Middle School in Lishan township, which administers Xingqi village, said many people in the area were talking about the incident.
"At around 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 21, 2012, villagers from the 10th collective of Xingqi village in Lishan township went to the county government offices to complain that ruffians had come to take over their land," wrote user @pianyideerguotou on Tianya Blog on Wednesday, after villagers said previous posts had been deleted.
"The government called the police without giving any explanation, and the police chief beat to death Li Fangsheng, who led the villagers," it said.
It said that a second villager, Ma Guangfa, was seriously injured, while Zhang Zhengying, an elderly woman, had broken a leg during the clashes.
"The [body of the] dead man and the two injured people are still in Lishan hospital," the post said. "The government has blocked the news online, because it doesn't want the truth to get out. Retweet!"
Earlier posts said Li, 54, was knocked to the ground, but that police didn't stop kicking him after he was down.
An official who answered the phone at the Sui county government offices declined to comment. "We will issue a statement online," the official said. "You should use the statements on the government website."
The statement on the Sui county government website said more than 40 villagers from Xingqi had come to the Sui county government offices on Friday, and the mood had become overexcited, as the protesters blocked the gates of the building and refused to let staff come in or out.
"In the course of police attempts to maintain public order, villager Li Fangsheng fell suddenly to the floor and died after being sent to hospital for emergency treatment," the statement said.
"An initial medical assessment showed that he died of a heart attack."
It said the government had set up a crisis management center to "deal with the incident."
The protest outside the county government offices were sparked by an earlier beating of a villager by dozens of hired thugs and two employees of a local property developer, according to villagers' online accounts.
The developer arrived to drive farmer Zhang Zhengying and her family off their farmland, while they were still harvesting a vegetable crop.
Zhang was beaten up by the hired thugs after she pleaded with them to hold off ground-preparation work until the family had finished harvesting their crop.
Zhang was also taken to the Lishan medical clinic for treatment for her injuries, villagers said.
An employee who answered the phone at the clinic said Zhang was currently unable to walk.
"She can't walk right now; she can't move," the employee said. "She has a lot of health problems, so we'll have to see how she recovers."
An officer who answered the phone at the Lishan township police station denied the incident had taken place, however.
"How could the police beat up villagers?" the officer said. "The police are there to protect the villagers, to protect the people."
"This is sheer fabrication," he said of the reports of Li's death. "People are just making up rumors."
"You can ask them how he died; whether the police beat him to death or whether in fact he died from some other cause," he added.
In China, all land is ultimately owned by the state, but is allocated to rural communities under collective contract and through the household responsibility system that replaced the state-run farms and communes of the Mao era.
Land acquisition for development, often resulting in lucrative property deals for local officials, sparks thousands of protests by local communities across China every month, many of which escalate into clashes with police.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said netizens had posted about the clashes on Sina Weibo and that those accounts said the elderly woman who broke her leg during the melee was unnamed. The posts were made on Tianya Blog and the elderly woman's name was Zhang Zhengying.