Thousands of people have attacked government buildings in southern China in a protest over land sales, a newspaper reported on Friday, the latest outbreak of trouble in the economic powerhouse of Guangdong province.
The protests in Lufeng, a city of 1.7 million, are the latest sign of growing public anger over land grabs, generally carried out by either private or state-linked companies but with the acquiescence of local governments.
These property disputes, in a country where the government legally owns all land, have led to protests, fights with police, imprisonment and suicides, and created a headache for the stability-obsessed ruling Communist Party.
Witnesses in Lufeng city said the protests, in which around a dozen residents were hurt, were triggered by the seizure of hectares of land and their sale to property developer Country Garden for 1 billion yuan ($156.6 million), Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported.
Directing their ire at the local seat of government and attacking buildings including the local Communist Party headquarters and a police station, the angry mob in some cases used "sticks, bricks and their fists," the Post reported.
Roads were also blocked, and a businessman said several thousand villagers had joined demonstrations outside government headquarters since Wednesday.
The trouble started on Wednesday morning when villagers demanded the return of their land, the report said.
The municipal government of Shanwei region, which includes Lufeng, confirmed the unrest in a statement issued late on Thursday night which said more than a dozen police officers were injured on Thursday, and six police vehicles damaged.
The Shanwei government accused villagers of having "ulterior motives" and of "inciting" other villagers to charge into the police station on Thursday afternoon by spreading rumours about police officers beating a child to death.
Four people have been detained for their role in organising the protests on Wednesday, according to the website of Shanwei's local news service.
Earlier this year, in the Guangdong factory town of Zengcheng, thousands outraged migrant workers rioted over the alleged maltreatment
of a female worker, torching government offices, smashing police cars and marching in their thousands through the streets.
Protests and incidents of "mass unrest" have risen recently, fuelled by 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 national number of recorded "mass incidents" such as riots and protests grew from 8,708 to around 90,000, Zhou wrote in the September edition of the magazine.
From 2007 to 2009, the number of such incidents was consistently above 90,000, he added.
"These conflicts are concentrated in rural land requisitions and urban housing demolition, as well as in resource development and environmental protection," wrote Zhou.
Chinese authorities are wary of any discussion of such discontent spreading, and by Friday morning, searches for 'Lufeng' on China's Twitter-style microblogging service Weibo were blocked, with a message saying the "relevant legal regulations" prevented showing the search results.
The unrest in one of China's most economically important provinces, encompassing the famed Pearl River Delta "world factory" zone that accounts for around a third of China's exports, is a major challenge for Guangdong Communist Party chief Wang Yang.
Wang, who is widely expected to be promoted to China's highest leadership ranks in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition next year, has called for a more balanced "Happy Guangdong" development model emphasising social harmony.
A message on the Internet bulletin board of the Southern Daily, Guangdong's official newspaper, says the residents of Wukan village have petitioned many times in 2009 and 2010 about the land disputes that triggered the riot.
"Please tell us, just who will take charge of this case? Do we really have nowhere to complain?" wrote a user.