Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong are holding an unknown number of people following clashes which broke out last week when police tried to tow away large numbers of residents' cars, eyewitnesses said on Monday.
The clashes were sparked on Friday after the arrival of several dozen government-hired muscle in unmarked cars, who began a series of spot checks on homes and businesses, ostensibly for unregistered vehicles, according to a resident of Guangdong's Nanchong township.
"These cars just drove right up to people's homes," said the resident, who gave only his surname Ye. "They had no markings or license plates, and they started taking people's cars away, so of course nobody was going to let that happen, and then the police came and beat people."
"After that, a lot of people gathered and started fighting," he said.
A resident surnamed Zhou said the unidentified men were going into people's homes to carry out checks on vehicles, and detaining anyone who tried to stop them.
"I heard a huge noise of shouting from the main street," she said. "They said the police were just randomly taking people's cars away, and anyone who tried to stop them was getting beaten up."
Hundreds of police
According to posts on China's popular microblog services, around 300 armed police were eventually sent to restore order, after local residents began overturning police cars in retaliation.
"It was about 1:00 p.m. on [Friday], and they sent vehicles straight here, but they didn't have license plates," said a second eyewitness surnamed Zhong.
"The cars were unmarked," he said. "When they got here, they started taking our vehicles, just like hooligans."
He said clashes broke out after local residents tried to protect their cars. "They just beat them up, and after that, everyone crowded round so as to stop them carrying on like that."
Zhong said a number of injured were taken to hospital after the clashes. "They didn't even spare people with disabilities," he said.
After the initial clashes, the authorities sent in more than 100 police, who joined in the fracas, which didn't end until 7:00 p.m. the same evening, he said.
"They wouldn't let anyone take pictures, and they beat up anyone they saw," he said. "When they were done beating them they dragged them into a police vehicle."
Zhong said the village had been quiet since the melee.
"Of course, we dare not put up any resistance," he said.
An official who answered the phone at the Nanchong township government offices declined to comment.
"I don't know, don't know," the official said on Monday, before hanging up the phone.
Guangdong-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling said the initial car raids could have been sparked by fiscal crisis at the local government, which was trying to expand its revenue by any means possible.
"They used to have a number of ways of making money, but they have exhausted all of them now," Tang said. "We are getting close to the end of the financial year ... so they are trying to think of ways to swell the coffers."
"A lot of local governments need a lot of money if they are to pay themselves big bonuses ... [Their methods] include using judicial pretexts like fines and so on," he said.
He said it was quite common for local governments to use anonymous muscle in unmarked cars for its "law enforcement" operations.
"This way, they get around the problem of citizens shooting video of them and putting it on the Internet," Tang said.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.