Authorities in the southeastern province of Fujian have deployed hundreds of riot police to disperse protesters defending their farmland from being taken away by the government, residents and officials said on Friday.
The riot police, using tear gas and electric batons, clashed with the protesters in Xindian township near Fujian's provincial capital, Fuzhou, on Thursday. Some protests persisted on Friday, local sources said.
"It was pretty scary yesterday," said a protester, Zhang Yueming, adding that he was among those beaten by police during the protest.
"There were five or six hundred policemen; some villagers said there were more than 1,000."
The riot police with shields and protective headgear "beat up the villagers, some of whom were in their seventies and eighties, using their feet and truncheons," she said.
"They beat their faces black and blue. There were hired thugs there as well, and they confiscated the camera of anyone filming."
Xindian resident Wu Xiuhua said the government had already taken 1,300 mu (86 hectares) from local villagers, and that this week's clashes were over a further 100 mu (6.67 hectares) of farmland.
"We have totally lost around 100 mu now," Wu said.
"They wouldn't let us take our belongings [sheds and other items] from the fields. They just demolished them," she added. "What sort of a government is this?"
Government denies injuries
An official surnamed Zheng in the Xindian Communist Party committee office denied that any villagers had been injured during the clashes.
"Yes [there were a lot of people there]," he said. "No, [the injuries] never happened."
"These villagers," he said. "You shouldn't only listen to one side of the story. You should come down here and find out for yourself whether we have paid compensation."
Some of the residents said the government offered "pension" payments to those who had retired and were affected by the land acquisition.
A third Xindian villager confirmed that the local government acquired the 100 mu of farmland, claiming there were no consultations with the local people.
"They turned our vegetable crops to pulp and bulldozed the land flat," she said. "Then they fenced off the area with steel fencing."
She said the middle-aged residents of Xindian have little hope of gaining employment in today's economic climate.
"They wouldn't even let us sweep the streets," she said. "There are several people in our family. What are they all supposed to eat?"
Zhang said local farming families relied on tilling the land to maintain a basic living standard.
"The biggest security for farming families is the land itself," she said. "How can we be farmers without land?"
She said the villagers were also protesting over the compensation of 300 yuan (46 dollars) a month in pension payments to senior citizens.
"That's for the people who are retired, but what about the people who haven't retired yet?" Zhang said. "You can buy water or you can buy electricity with 300 yuan, but you can't buy food."
"This is a very expensive city. What are we going to live on?"
Premier Wen Jiabao warned local governments on Monday that no land should be taken "against a farmer's will."
Speaking on a tour of rural, poverty-stricken Shanxi, Wen told farmers their land was a "fundamental social security."
"Even if the land is to be used for roads or houses, no one can take a farmer's land against their will," he said.
A directive issued by China's cabinet, the State Council, called last weekend for measures to "correct procedural errors" in rural land use reform.
But cash-strapped local governments often ignore central government directives in their rush to profit from the country's booming property market.
China is facing a shortage of farmland following three decades of rapid urbanization, which has seen around 20 million hectares (49.4 million acres) of land converted to nonagricultural use.
The government recently downgraded its target of 140 million hectares (346 million acres) of farmland to guarantee food security to 120 million hectares (296.5 million acres), official media reported.
China 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.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Dai Weisen for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.