Paramilitary police patrolled the streets of a central Chinese city Saturday following a riot over the death of city councilman in police custody, the latest in a string of incidents highlighting government fears of widening social unrest.
Thousands of people laid seige to government offices in Lichuan in Hubei province on Thursday, throwing bottles, eggs and other objects and tussling with police, according to eyewitnesses reached by phone and accounts posted online.
Some in the crowd pushed over the compound's electric gate, ransacked the office of the city's Communist Party boss and smashed a large sign reading "Serve the people" _ a quotation from the founder of the communist state, Mao Zedong, according to their accounts, which could not be independently verified.
The riot prompted police to bring in reinforcements from the paramilitary People's Armed Police backed by armored vehicles, said residents reached by phone who refused to give their names for fear of reprisals.
"There hasn't been any trouble for the last two days, but the PAP are patrolling regularly outside," said one woman reached at her home.
A receptionist at a hotel located nearby government headquarters said protesters gathered there from morning to late in the afternoon, with the crowd growing several thousand-strong. She said both police and protesters were injured and more than a dozen people were detained.
Staff at government offices referred all questions to the local Communist Party propaganda office, where phones rang unanswered Saturday. An officer at Lichuan's police headquarters said she would have to get permission from her superiors to answer questions about the incident and did not call back.
There were no official reports of injuries or arrests in the riot, although photos posted to microblogs appeared to show policemen clubbing and kicking people. Estimates online of the size of the crowd ran from 2,000 to 20,000.
Protesters, including family members, were demanding punishment of those involved in the death while undergoing interrogation of local People's Congress deputy Ran Jianxin on June 4.
While Ran's death remains officially under investigation, relatives say he was beaten to death and have circulated photos on the Internet purporting to show bruises covering his body. Though technically illegal, beatings and torture are believed to be routinely applied by police and investigators who rely overwhelmingly on confessions to obtain convictions.
Ran, 49, had been placed under investigation last November for allegedly taking bribes from construction contractors and was formally arrested and taken into custody on May 26. Ran's family claim his arrest and subsequent beating was payback for his leveling allegations of corruption against top city officials.
"Ran's cousin said he found signs of wounds and bruises on Ran's body at the hospital and believed that they were signs of an 'unnatural death,'" the official Xinhua News Agency said in a brief account of the incident.
In an apparent effort to calm the situation, authorities have suspended Li Wei, the city's deputy party boss in charge of discipline, and placed under investigation over Ran's death, according to Xinhua. At least one other official has resigned and three more are under investigation, it said.
Incidents such as the Lichuan riot are a sign of widespread distrust of the authorities and frustration with corruption, favoritism and lack of responsiveness to common grievances such as illegal land grabs.
Last month, a man described as upset over a land dispute with the government set off three bombs in the southern city of Fuzhou, killing himself and two others and stirring a public angry at official corruption and indifference.
National leaders obsessed with maintaining stability and the party's grip on power have ordered local leaders to solve social problems at the grass roots, while at the same time investing heavily in the armed police and monitoring of dissent.
A task force from elite Tsinghua University reported last year that spending on internal security nationwide was on par with the official defense budget and was expanding much faster. While the domestic security budget is unpublished, official military spending received a 12.7 percent boost this year, to $91.5 billion.