A man accused of taking part in a riot over land grabs in a southern Chinese village has died in police custody, threatening to fan tension in a small pocket of Guangdong Province that has become a source of persistent unrest.
The man died as riot police moved to quell a longstanding dispute in Wukan village on the coast of the booming province and economic powerhouse, where commercial and industrial development has consumed swathes of rice paddies.
Villagers say hundreds of hectares have been acquired unfairly by corrupt officials in collusion with powerful developers over the past few years.
The government in Shanwei, an area that includes Wukan in its jurisdiction, said that Xue Jinbo (薛錦波) fell ill on Sunday, his third day in detention over the riot. Hospital doctors later pronounced him dead.
In an apparent effort to head off further trouble in the area that saw hundreds of riot police fire tear gas to dispel protesting, rock--pelting villagers on Sunday, officials immediately notified Xue’s family and offered aid.
“The cause of death was cardiac failure and other causes of death have been provisionally ruled out,” the notice on the Shanwei City Government Web site said, citing doctors.
The death in custody nonetheless threatens to stir fresh tensions and has already generated an angry Internet backlash.
“We’re very pained and angry at his death,” said one villager who declined to be named, given the fear of reprisals by authorities. “He didn’t commit any crime. He was just a negotiator speaking with the government, trying to get our land back. He was defending farmers’ rights.”
Though the Chinese Communist Party has ruled over decades of economic growth that have shielded it from challenges to its power, the country is confronted by thousands of smaller-scale protests and riots every year that chip away at party authority at the grassroots, where discontent is often fed by land and property disputes.
One expert on unrest, Sun Liping (孫立平) of Beijing’s Tsinghua University, has estimated that there could have been more than 180,000 such “mass incidents” last year, but most estimates from Chinese academics and government experts put recent numbers at about 90,000 annually in 2009 and last year.
The government has not given any statistics. In any case, the real worry for Chinese authorities is not the number of such protests, but their tendency to become more persistent and organized — as in the unrest in Wukan village, which has persisted over months.
Pictures on microblogging sites from Wukan on Sunday showed large numbers of riot police standing off with thousands of residents, some armed with sticks and spades, who are demanding the return of their farmland.