HONG KONG (Reuters) - Thousands of residents of a south China village rallied on Wednesday in defiance of police who sealed off the area to contain a long-running feud over land grabs and anger over the death of a village leader in police custody.
The death of Xue Jinbo, 42, fanned tension in the small pocket of export-dependent Guangdong province and came after riot police fired water cannons and tear gas on Sunday to disperse thousands of stone-throwing villagers on the coast of the booming province.
Residents of Wukan village say hundreds of hectares of land have been acquired unfairly by corrupt officials in collusion with developers.
Anger in the village finally boiled over this year after repeated appeals to authorities over recent years to do something.
Relatives of Xue said he was the victim of police brutality and his body showed heavy bruising and other signs of abuse. They have rejected official accounts that he died of a cardiac arrest after being interrogated on December 9 and 10.
"The case is under further investigation," Zheng Yanxiong, the Communist Party boss of Shanwei city, which oversees Wukan village, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.
"The government will strive to settle all related problems and hopes that the village will not be instigated into staging further riots."
Human rights group Amnesty International called for an immediate and independent investigation into Xue's death, adding that China was failing to protect citizens from forced eviction.
"Contrary to international human rights law and standards, Chinese citizens rarely have an opportunity for genuine consultation before eviction, rarely receive adequate information on the nature or purpose of the eviction and often receive little or no compensation," the group said in a statement.
The term "Wukan" was blocked on China's Twitter-like microblogging service Weibo on Wednesday.
"SOMETHING TO HIDE"
China's Communist Party leaders face thousands of small protests and riots every year that chip away at its authority at the grassroots. Land disputes are a widespread source of discord.
One expert on unrest, Sun Liping of Beijing's Tsinghua University, estimates there may have been more than 180,000 such "mass incidents" in 2010, nearly double the number often cited by academics and government experts.
According to a witness, villagers at the Wukan rally gathered in front of a poster of Xue and chanted slogans denouncing corrupt officials.
They also pressed for Xue's body to be returned for proper funeral rites, a request that authorities have refused.
"They clearly have something to hide," one resident told Reuters by telephone. "We will continue to fight for justice for Xue's death and we won't back down."
Riot police maintained a tight cordon around the village on Wednesday and barred almost all access to and from the area, while blocking some supplies of food.
Villagers have built makeshift defenses including cooking gas canisters and nail boards on roads leading into the village to guard against what many fear will be another imminent police crack down and wave of arrests.
"We beg the central government to save us," said another villager by phone. "Everything is black now."
(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel)