By James Pomfret
LUFENG, China (Reuters) - Hundreds of villagers in southern China protested on Friday over a government seizure of land, the latest outbreak of trouble in the economic powerhouse of Guangdong province that illustrates growing public anger at the practice of land grabs.
The farmers gathered outside government offices in Lufeng, a city of 1.7 million, banging on gongs and shouting: "Give us our land back." They held banners that said "return our farmland" and "let us continue farming."
Most stood by watching and there was no immediate violence or police presence. Villagers blocked roads with motorbikes and broken bricks were piled by the roadsides.
The protests over land seizures, generally carried out by private or state-linked companies but with the acquiescence of local governments, have persisted despite assurances from the government that it will address the problem.
"We call on the government to come and investigate these land grabs by the Shanwei government," said villager Zhang Jiancheng, 35, in Wukan, one of a cluster of Lufang suburbs. "Otherwise, more villagers will rise up and cause disturbances.
"We want Wen Jiabao to pay attention to our suffering," he said, referring to China's premier.
The disputes in a country where the government legally owns all land have led to protests, fights with police, imprisonment and suicides, and created a recurring headache for the ruling Communist Party which is obsessed with stability.
"We are very angry because we have no land for our livelihood anymore," said farmer Chen Hanzou, 36, standing next to the plot of seized land in Longguang village. He added that the government took away about 40 hectares.
At Wukan village, villagers held a large white banner filled with signatures, petitioning for the return of their land.
It was the third day of tensions in Lufeng. Hundreds of villagers attacked government buildings, according to a statement by the municipal government of Shanwei region, which includes Lufeng. More than a dozen police officers were injured in the clashes and six police vehicles were damaged, it said in the statement on its website late on Thursday night.
Villagers told Reuters the protests were triggered by the seizure and sale to property developers including Country Garden. The developer could not immediately comment.
Shanwei officials accused villagers with "ulterior motives" of inciting others to charge into the police station on Thursday afternoon by spreading rumors about police officers beating a child to death. The statement denied any civilian deaths.
But a villager from Longguang village surnamed Li told Reuters that police beat two students on Thursday, killing one of them on the spot.
"The officials here are corrupt and are colluding with the developers," he said.
Four people were detained for organizing the protests on Wednesday, Shanwei's local news service said on its website.
"We must be united," said wheelchair-bound villager Li Shicao. "If we're scared, they'll sell all the rest of our land."
It was the latest flareup of violence in Guangdong. Earlier this year, in the factory town of Zengcheng, thousands of 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, fueled 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 number of recorded "mass incidents" like riots and protests grew from 8,708 to about 90,000, Zhou wrote in the magazine's September edition. From 2007 to 2009, the number of incidents was consistently above 90,000, he added.
"By and large, the authorities have failed to prevent ... incidents of social unrest from multiplying," said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "The root cause in the countryside is land grabs."
A message on the Internet bulletin board of the Southern Daily, Guangdong's official newspaper, says residents of Wukan village had petitioned repeatedly in 2009 and 2010 about the land disputes that triggered the riot.
"Please tell us, just who will take charge of this case?" wrote a user. "Do we really have nowhere to complain?"
China faces a leadership transition next year, with Hu Jintao expected to retire from the Communist Party in the fall and the presidency the following March, handing the posts to anointed successor Xi Jinping.
The rising discontent over land grabs, forced demolitions and corruption has increased anxieties among officials, who are determined to defend one-party rule and make the transition to a younger generation of leaders as smooth as possible.
Authorities are wary of any spread of discontent. Searches for "Lufeng" on China's Twitter-style microblogging service Weibo were blocked, with a message saying the "relevant legal regulations" prevented displaying the results.
The unrest in one of China's most economically important provinces, with the famed Pearl River Delta "world factory" zone that accounts for around a third of China's exports, also poses a major challenge for Guangdong Communist Party chief Wang Yang.
Wang, who is expected to be promoted to China's highest ranks in the leadership transition, has called for a "Happy Guangdong" development model that evens out the economic imbalances and emphasizes social harmony.
Bequelin said China could take a carrot and stick approach to Lufeng, arresting ringleaders but paying off the villagers.
"It's a vicious system where the government rewards disruption to social stability," he said. "The protesters notice and know that ... if they make big trouble, they will have big compensation."
(Additional reporting by Sisi Tang in Hong Kong and Chris Buckley, Sabrina Mao and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee, Editing by Brian Rhoads)