BEIJING (AP) — A real estate developer and a village official in eastern China directed the arsonists who set a fire in which a farmer burned to death in a tent that he had pitched to guard his land against development, police said.
The fire early Friday in Dujiatuan village in Shandong province also injured three other farmers. Media reports have said villagers were taking turns guarding their farms at night because they feared they would be seized.
Land grabs and home demolitions are widely considered the single biggest source of social conflict in China, and are expected to intensify following a government plan to expand and build more cities. The government technically owns most land in the country and can seize property for projects deemed in the public interest. Compensation is supposed to be given to residents who are evicted, but that does not always happen or is not always fair.
Developers sometimes hire thugs to threaten residents.
Dujiatuan village is in Pingdu county, which has been the center of a number of land protests in recent months.
A police investigation showed the four people who lit Friday's fire and then ran away were acting on the instructions of a representative of a local real estate company and builder, and the head of the village committee, according to a statement late Tuesday on Pingdu city police's microblog.
The statement said police had detained seven suspects and were still investigating.
The decision to publicly announce the finds reflects Beijing's determination to crack down on such abuses, which threaten social stability.
Calls Wednesday to the named company — the Guihe Real Estate Company — Pingdu government and its propaganda department rang unanswered. A number was not found for the village committee.
China announced earlier this month that it wanted to accelerate the development of small and medium-sized cities with an emphasis on towns to help with its aim of supporting economic growth by allowing millions more rural residents to migrate to urban jobs.
"The process of urbanization will surely escalate the problem" of illegal land grabs, said Liu Shanying, a political scientist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He said the government should create "a just and fair legal environment" for people to bring a lawsuit when their rights are violated.
AP researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.