updated 1/9/2008 6:15:11 PM ET 2008-01-09T23:15:11

Chinese officials detained four people over the beating death of a man who had filmed a clash between villagers and authorities, state media said Wednesday.

The killing touched off protests that underscored public anger over abusive treatment by government employees.

The swift action by officials reflected concerns that such incidents could spill over into larger protests against authorities, whose heavy-handed manner of dealing with civil disputes frequently arouses resentment.

Residents angrily marched Tuesday in front of Tianmen city hall in central China, demanding redress for the death of Wei Wenhua, a 41-year-old construction company executive, said Chen Junling, Wei's brother-in-law.

Chen said protesters numbered in the thousands — a figure that could not be independently verified — while a Communist Party official denied any demonstrations had occurred at all.

Victim stopped to take a look
On Monday, Wei had stopped while driving when he saw local villagers squaring off against 50 urban administrative inspectors in Wanba, a village on the outskirts of Tianmen in Hubei province, his family and state media said.

The villagers were arguing with authorities over the dumping of garbage by city trucks near their homes. The dispute evolved into a scuffle when residents tried to prevent the trucks from unloading, which Wei captured on his phone, Xinhua said.

After Wei took out his cell phone to record the demonstration, officials turned on him, punching and attacking him for five minutes, Xinhua said. Wei was dead on arrival at a Tianmen hospital, the report said. An autopsy was being conducted.

Police have detained four people and are investigating more than 100 in the killing, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Discontent over officials
Wei's death is the latest to crystallize public discontent over abusive treatment by officials. The passions it has unleashed, if left unchecked, could complicate the task of Chinese leaders, who have promised a more compassionate, law-abiding government.

In Wei's case, the officials allegedly involved were not police, but uniformed members of the Tianmen urban administration bureau whose duties include keeping streets orderly and making sure vendors are properly licensed. Peddlers and streetside hawkers frequently accuse them of bullying and abuse.

A Tianmen government official who would give only his surname, Li, confirmed there had been protests Tuesday but refused to give any other details.

But Zhang Beiping, spokesman for the Tianmen Communist Party office, denied any demonstrations took place. He said police are investigating Wei's death and have already detained culprits, though he declined to say how many or further identify them.

'Unspeakable anger' online
The beating was fiercely condemned online.

"It's no longer news that urban administrators enforce the law with violence," said an editorial on the news Web site Northeast News. "But now someone has been beaten to death on site. It has brought us not surprise, but unspeakable anger."

Chen Yizhong, a columnist on Xinhua's Web site, asked why violence by city inspectors is allowed to continue.

"Cities need administration, but urban administrators need to be governed by law first," he wrote.

In 2003, a public outcry over the death of a 27-year-old college graduate detained for not carrying proper identification prompted China's premier to restrict police powers of detention.

In the central city of Zhengzhou last year, 1,000 college students scuffled with police and overturned cars after city inspectors beat a female student who had set up a street stall.

The employee at Wei's construction company said that the city management officials were notorious for beating up people.

"What we want is for the killers to be severely punished," said Chen, Wei's brother-in-law.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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