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Hundreds of  angry China villagers protest state land grab

Hundreds of villagers in southern China protest over a government seizure of land, the latest outbreak of trouble in the economic powerhouse of Guangdong province.
Image: Villagers from Wukan collect signatures in support for a protest in Lufeng in the southern Chinese Guangdong province
Villagers from Wukan collect signatures in support for a protest in Lufeng, in southern Chinese Guangdong province, on Friday.Staff / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Hundreds of villagers enraged over government land seizures staged a third day of protests in southern China on Friday, a day after ransacking government buildings and engaging in skirmishes with police that left at least 12 people injured.

The fresh demonstrations, the latest display of public fury in the economic powerhouse of Guangdong province, proceeded without violence, with protesters jubiliant that government offices remained deserted after terrified officials fled.

Local government offices were gutted in Wukan -- one of a cluster of suburbs in Lufeng, a city of 1.7 million -- with broken furniture, smashed glass and papers strewn about the courtyard. A police station was deserted, its windows shattered and its sign smashed.

Hundreds of villagers in the suburb signed a white banner, demanding the return of swathes of land seized in recent years.

Outside Lufeng's main government office building, farmers banged on gongs and shouted: "Give us our land back." White banners held aloft said: "Protect our farmland with our lives" and "end collusion with developers."

Most stood by watching, with no security or police personnel to direct their anger at. Villagers blocked roads with motorbikes and broken bricks were piled by the roadsides.

A statement by the municipal government of Shanwei region, which includes Lufeng, said more than a dozen policemen had been injured in earlier clashes and six police vehicles were damaged.

Protests persist
The protests over land seizures, generally carried out by private or state-linked companies but with the acquiescence of local governments, have persisted despite assurances from the government that it will address the problem.

"We call on the central government to come and investigate these land grabs by the Shanwei government," said Zhang Jiancheng, 35. "Otherwise, more villagers will rise up and cause disturbances.

"We want Wen Jiabao to pay attention to our suffering," he said, referring to China's premier.

"We must be united," said wheelchair-bound villager Li Shicao. "If we're scared, they'll sell the rest of our land."

The disputes in a country where the government legally owns all land have spawned protests, fights with police, imprisonment and suicides, and created a recurring headache for the ruling Communist Party, obsessed with stability.

On Thursday, protesters said they came under attack from riot police wielding truncheons.

"They were hitting everyone from children to a 70-year-old woman," said Huang Shuisheng, 28, an oxygen tube attached to his nose as he lay in a hospital bed in a blood-spattered t-shirt.

Scores of others were being treated in the ward.

Villagers told Reuters the protests were triggered by the seizure and sale to property developers including Country Garden. The developer could not immediately comment.

Shanwei officials accused villagers with "ulterior motives" of inciting others to charge into the police station on Thursday afternoon by spreading rumours about police officers beating a child to death. The statement denied any civilian deaths.

Four people were detained for organising the protests on Wednesday, Shanwei's local news service said on its website.

Guangdong has been gripped by a series of violent protests.

Thousands of migrant workers rioted earlier this year in the factory town of Zengcheng over the alleged maltreatment of a pregnant female worker, torching government offices, smashing police cars and marching in their thousands.

More protests
Protests and incidents of "mass unrest" have risen from rapid economic transformation, according to Zhou Ruijin, a former deputy editor-in-chief of the People's Daily, writing in current affairs magazine, "China through the Ages."

Between 1993 and 2006, the number of recorded "mass incidents" grew from 8,708 to about 90,000, Zhou wrote in the magazine's September edition. From 2007 to 2009, the number of incidents was consistently above 90,000, he added.

"By and large, the authorities have failed to prevent ... incidents of social unrest from multiplying," said Nicholas Bequelin, a China expert with Human Rights Watch. "The root cause in the countryside is land grabs."

A message on the Internet bulletin board of the Southern Daily, Guangdong's official newspaper, says residents of Wukan village had petitioned repeatedly in 2009 and 2010 about the land disputes that triggered the riot.

China faces a leadership transition next year, with Hu Jintao expected to retire from the Communist Party in the fall and the presidency the following March, handing the posts to anointed successor Xi Jinping.

Rising discontent over land grabs, forced demolitions and corruption has increased anxieties among officials determined to defend one-party rule and make the transition to a younger generation of leaders as smooth as possible.

Authorities are wary of any spread of discontent. Searches for "Lufeng" on China's Twitter-style microblogging service Weibo were blocked, with a message saying the "relevant legal regulations" prevented displaying the results.