Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong on Monday lined the streets around government buildings with riot police to keep at bay thousands of protesters amid a dispute over the loss of their farmland, activists and officials said.
A resident surnamed Lin of Liantang village, in the Jinping district of Guangdong's Shantou city, said that around 4,000 Liantang villagers had got up in the early hours to visit their local government offices, but that police had arrived even earlier and had sealed off the area.
"We got up at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., and we saw there were riot police standing guard, with vehicles parked so as to seal off the area behind them," Lin said.
"They had got rid of all the buses, and a lot of the routes going in the direction of the district government offices were out of service."
He said the villagers had found their way blocked by police when they arrived at the Jinping district government offices.
A second resident, also surnamed Lin, said some protesters had been prevented from getting to the protest by public transportation, and had walked instead.
"The bus driver wouldn't let us get on the bus," she said. "They rounded us up halfway there."
"The police rounded us up and wouldn't let us go there; they had formed a line, so we couldn't go in and had to hang around outside the gates."
Sold in secret
Residents of Liantang say their collectively held farmland was sold off in secret without their knowledge, and with no compensation, in a long-running dispute over land which has so far yielded scant result.
Lin said this visit had ended only in a stand-off with riot police.
"Some people from the district government took our petition, and said they'd forward it to the relevant team," he said. "But they refused to come out and meet with the crowd."
A second Liantang resident surnamed Liu said the authorities had detained two organizers of the protest early on Monday.
"We haven't had a 'reply to' date on the issue of our lost land," Liu said. "They are dragging their feet and covering it up, and so the villagers decided to get up and defend their rights."
"But instead, they were detained, although they haven't done anything wrong; they are all law-abiding citizens, and we have had no result on the question of our land," he added.
An official who answered the phone at the Jinping district government offices confirmed the villagers had arrived there on Monday.
"The villagers who came with a petition have gone now," the official said. "They handed over their documents, and our leaders are dealing with it right now."
"But I can't say exactly what they are doing about it."
The eastern part of Guangdong province has witnessed a number of high-profile, bitter disputes over the sale of farmland, as cash-strapped local governments seek to swell their coffers by cashing in on skyrocketing property prices.
In September 2011, the village of Wukan near Shanwei city stunned officials with a highly organized and orderly anti-corruption protest by more than 3,000 villagers wielding colorful banners outside government offices.
However, 18 months after the rebel village succeeded in throwing out its ruling Chinese Communist Party leaders, the newly elected committee has been hamstrung in its attempts to return residents' farmland sold to developers by a corrupt village chief.
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 Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.