BEIJING — A man from a southern Chinese fishing village whose death in police custody helped spark a rare revolt was given a hero's farewell Friday as thousands of tearful residents mourned what they called his sacrifice for them.
Wukan, a village of 20,000, has for months been the site of simmering protests by locals who say officials sold farmland to developers without their consent.
Protests against official misconduct are increasingly common in fast-developing China, but Wukan residents have taken things a step further, erecting barricades over the weekend to keep police out and posing a challenge to the authoritarian government. On a near-daily basis, thousands of villagers gather for rallies, shouting slogans for the return of their land and pumping their fists in the air.
The gathering took on a more somber note Friday as about 7,000 people attended a memorial ceremony for local butcher Xue Jinbo, who before his death had been one of the village's representatives in tense negotiations with officials over the land seizure.
Banners saying "You sacrificed your life for our land" and "Sadly mourn Xue Jinbo" were displayed at the ceremony, said villager Qin Zhuan, who was reached by phone.
Qin said they made speeches and lined up to bow in front of a large photograph of Xue, who died Sunday, not long after he was detained by police on suspicion of participating in riots in September.
Expressing commonly held suspicions over Xue's death, another villager said he appeared to have been abused in custody.
"He is man with a loving heart for people. He was killed for struggling to win the land for the villagers. We all cried for him," said villager Huang Hancan. "He must have suffered from mistreatment for a good healthy man to turn into a dead man just a day after being detained. No doubt, he was beaten to death and everyone can imagine that."
In an interview this week with Hong Kong online magazine iSun Affairs, Xue Jinbo's daughter said his body showed signs of bruising and swelling on his mouth, hands, neck and elsewhere, as well as open wounds on his forehead and jaw.
"When we looked at his back, there were also many bruises that look like he had been kicked or stamped on," she said in a video posted on the magazine's website.
Calls to the offices of the Communist Party propaganda department and the government of Shanwei city, which oversees Wukan, rang unanswered Friday. Chinese media reported that local authorities said Xue died of cardiac failure.
Problems in Wukan erupted in violence in September, when hundreds of villagers smashed buildings and clashed with police in protest against the sale of their farmland without their consent. Villagers since have submitted petitions and sought meetings with higher officials without success.
Last Friday, police took away several village representatives and when police tried to return the next day, residents blockaded the roads with tree trunks and barriers to stop them. Residents say police fired tear gas and water cannons at the villagers, who armed themselves with sticks, clubs, hoes and other farming tools.
Police then retreated and set up blockades on the main roads into Wukan, preventing villagers from entering and leaving and food from being brought in, villagers reached by phone said.
Huang said the residents would not give up. "We want justice from the government and we will fight to the end," he said, adding that the villagers also wanted the truth about Xue's death.
On Wednesday, the mayor of Shanwei city threatened to take strong measures against the leaders of the rebellion. He also promised to investigate local officials for wrongdoing and impose a temporary freeze on one farmland development project until a majority of villagers are satisfied with the conditions of the land transfer.
But signs of a split in the community were starting to emerge. Government supporters were offering food in exchange for villagers' signatures, said Qin, the woman who attended the funeral.
"Most of them are former village officials and their relatives who have an interest in the land sales," Qin said. "They offered us rice and cooking oil on condition that we must sign an empty white paper. We suspected that our signatures would be used for other purposes, so we refused to sign."
With a booming economy, demand for land to build factories and housing complexes in China has soared. Land disputes have grown apace, becoming one of the leading causes of the tens of thousands of large-scale protests that hit China every year.
Around Wukan village and in much of the rest of Guangdong province, conflicts have been intense because the area is among China's most economically developed, pushing up land prices.
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