BEIJING (AP) — Villagers in a bitter standoff with a property developer in rural southwestern China detained several construction workers and burned four of them to death in a scuffle that left eight people dead, authorities said Thursday.
The incident in Yunnan province was one of the most violent land conflicts in recent years to strike the country's vast rural hinterland, casting a spotlight on the plight and anger of rural residents who see their livelihoods threatened when their lands are seized by developers with the backing of local governments keen on economic development.
Often, villagers, left with no means to seek redress, have resorted to violence in defending their rights, making land disputes a chief cause of unrest in China.
"What can a villager do when he cannot resort to the law, gets no response from the local government and finds it useless to petition the higher authority?" rights advocate Huang Qi said. "So they resist with their lives."
Alarmed by such violence, the ruling Communist Party is expected to grant more independence to local courts in hopes of extending justice and alleviating tensions between members of the public and local governments. A decision on the matter is anticipated when the party's Central Committee meets next week.
State media reports said the latest dispute at Fuyou village was over land compensation. Villagers complained about low payments for land seized for a warehouse and logistics center, a major project backed by the local government.
In its written statement, the Kunming government made no reference to its role, but said the standoff between villagers and the developer had delayed the project since May.
Villagers detained eight construction workers on Tuesday when the developer attempted to restart work on the site, the government statement said. It said the villagers then bound the workers' hands and feet, beat them up, and poured gasoline on them before throwing them onto a road near the construction site.
Villagers wielding improvised weapons later stormed the construction site and clashed violently with hired hands, the statement said, although other media reports said the hired hands started the fray that killed two villagers.
The government said the villagers tossed out homemade gasoline bombs in the scuffle and set fire to the gasoline-drenched detainees. Four workers burned to death and two others died from unspecified injuries, it said.
The violence hasn't been unconditionally condemned by members of the public, many of whom are instead questioning what led to the conflict.
"Neither side trusted the current legal system, and neither was willing to solve disputes within the current political framework, so they took the matter into their own hands," blogger Liu Buchen wrote. "If the current law can be trusted, there will be significantly fewer cases where violence is used to solve disputes."
State media are blaming the local government.
"It shows the local government has not made effective efforts to resolve the conflict between the developer and the villagers," said a Beijing Times editorial, pointing out that the villagers had lost fertile lands that once provided them with handsome profits.
The party-run Guangming Daily said the villagers have found themselves impoverished after their lands were seized by the developer. It questioned from where the hired hands had obtained police equipment, including military bags.