Authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang have detained and interrogated several farmers on suspicion of revealing state secrets and speaking to "hostile" media organizations, relatives said this week.
The detentions came after local farming communities, who include ethnic minority Kazakhs, Uyghurs and Xibe, as well as migrant Han Chinese farmers, protested the canceling of their 30-year and 50-year land leases by officials in the Qapqal Xibe Autonomous County in Xinjiang's Ili prefecture.
"They summoned my husband to the police station [where] I heard the police officer say that someone had called up Radio Free Asia," the wife of farmer Shen Zhihe told RFA's Mandarin Service.
She said Shen was detained in a raid by armed police nearly a week ago, alongside several other outspoken farmers in the county who are fighting the loss of 12,000 hectares (120 square kilometers) of farmland which they invested in as part of a western development program begun in the late 1990s.
She identified the others detained as Gou Liuming, Chen Ying, Xiao Hong and Yu Xiaozhen.
"They just kept asking him, over and over, whether he had called Radio Free Asia or taken their call."
The loss of farmland by communities in Qapqal (in Chinese, Chabu Cha'er) was first exposed by RFA's Mandarin Service feature program, Investigative Report, the first episode of which aired on Dec. 18.
In it, Xibe and Han migrant families from northeastern China said their land leases, which they signed before investing "millions of yuan" in making the once-barren tract of land viable, had been revoked by local officials.
Farmers said they had been roughed up and dismissed by officials when they went to try to negotiate a settlement, which included an offer to pay an additional fee for the land use in recognition of soaring land values.
A Qapqal resident who identified himself as being "of Mongolian descent," said he was among at least eight people who had been taken to the county police department for questioning.
"It was five people the first time, and three the second time," the resident said, adding that the police accused World Uyghur Congress President Rebiya Kadeer of setting up a "fraudulent story."
"All our cell phones and computers have been taken to the police station," he added.
Shen said police seemed incensed that local farmers had spoken to RFA, which they described as "an anti-party station."
"I asked them 'what is this radio station? Is it a radio station that ordinary people complain to about injustices?'"
"I told them, 'give me the number; I want to call them too.'"
She said her husband, who is diabetic, had been taken ill the next day.
"They gave them nothing to eat for the entire day, and the next day my husband, who has high blood sugar and high blood pressure, had to be admitted to hospital," she added.
A local source who declined to be named said police classified RFA as one of the "three hostile forces" working to bring down the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"I asked them if they would give me the content they had downloaded [from RFA] so I could see what it was, but they...refused," the resident said.
"They really take this seriously...they took guns to detain one woman," he said, referring to the detention of Chen Ying.
A third local resident, who declined to be named, said police who detained Chen Ying had handed her a summons saying she was suspected of "revealing state secrets."
Earlier this month, Chen had told RFA that her family had poured large sums of money and labor to transform the land from near-desert to a tillable resource.
"We invested a lot of money," Chen said. "Back then, it was all waste ground and desert, and we hired people to dig all the stones out of the ground...and brought trees here."
"Now they are just taking it back with no compensation; they say we get to keep the houses we live in, but the land has gone," she said in an interview broadcast on Dec. 18.
"As soon as we made it fertile, they looked at it with envy, and now they have taken it away," said Chen, whose family migrated to the region from northeastern China as part of a national economic development plan for impoverished western regions begun in 2000.
Police had earlier detained a number of Qapqal farmers over their petitioning activities, sentencing them to periods of up to 60 days' administrative detention for "spoiling agricultural land," local residents said.
Many have had their ID cards and computers confiscated, while others are under residential surveillance.
Repeated calls to the cell phones and direct lines of Qapqal county Communist Party secretary Wang Yiwen and county governor Wang Chunguang went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
Calls to the county police department also rang unanswered on Wednesday, which is a normal working day in China.
A fourth resident who declined to be named said local people were extremely angry at the loss of their land, which they see as being grabbed by corrupt local officials.
"The mountains are high, and the emperor is a long way off," he said. "These officials are supposed to be our mother and father, but they're not fit to be."
"They say the police and the people are like fish and water, but it's the police and the party secretary who are like fish and water," he added.
He said his family alone lost 2,500 mu (166 hectares) to the land grab.
"It's all gone now," he said.
Reported by Bai Fan and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.