By James Pomfret and Chris Buckley
HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - A man accused of taking part in a riot over land grabs in a southern Chinese village has died in police custody, threatening to fan tension in a small pocket of export-dependent Guangdong province that has become a source of persistent unrest.
The man died as riot police moved to quell a longstanding dispute in Wukan village on the coast of the booming province and economic powerhouse, where commercial and industrial development has consumed swathes of rice paddies.
Villagers say hundreds of hectares have been acquired unfairly by corrupt officials in collusion with developers.
The government in Shanwei, an area that includes Wukan, said that Xue Jinbo fell ill on Sunday, his third day in detention. Hospital doctors later pronounced him dead.
In an apparent effort to head off further trouble in the area that saw hundreds of riot police fire tear gas to disperse protesting, rock-pelting villagers on Sunday, officials immediately notified Xue's family and offered aid.
"The cause of death was cardiac failure, and other causes of death have been provisionally ruled out," said the notice on the Shanwei government website (www.shanwei.gov.cn), citing doctors.
But distraught relatives disputed this and said Xue had been beaten and tortured. After viewing his corpse, his tearful daughter told Hong Kong's Cable Television that his face was purple, his nails and hands smashed and his wrists had welts.
The death has already generated an angry Internet backlash.
"We're very pained and angry at his death," said one villager who declined to be identified. "He didn't commit any crime. He was just a negotiator speaking with the government, trying to get our land back. He was defending farmers' rights."
Though China's Communist Party has ruled over decades of economic growth that have shielded it from challenges to its power, the country faces thousands of smaller protests and riots every year that chip away at party authority at the grassroots, where discontent is often fed by land and property disputes.
One expert on unrest, Sun Liping of Beijing's Tsinghua University, estimates there could have been more than 180,000 "mass incidents" in 2010. Most estimates from academics and government experts put recent numbers at about 90,000 annually in 2009 and 2010.
The government has not given any statistics.
"THIS MUST BE THOROUGHLY INVESTIGATED"
The real worry for authorities is not the number of protests, but their tendency to become more persistent and organized -- as in Wukan where they have extended over months.
The death in custody drew condemnation from commentators critical of heavy-handed government responses to protest.
Xiao Shu, a former commentator for the Southern Weekend, a popular Guangdong newspaper, demanded a probe into the death of Xue, reportedly one of the organizers of a village assembly that the government declared illegal.
Pictures on microblogging sites from Wukan on Sunday showed riot police confronting thousands of residents, some armed with sticks and spades, yelling slogans to "beat down corrupt officials" and demanding the return of farmland.
On Monday, the mood remained tense.
Witnesses said hundreds of riot police remained on the perimeter of the village, blocking almost all people and vehicles from entering or leaving. Some villagers said food supplies had also been cut.
Authorities have also been making night-time sweeps of Wukan for a week, arriving in vehicles with sirens wailing, witnesses said, dragging citizens from their bed and interrogating them. Cable television showed some residents building makeshift nail barriers on roads and digging trenches to impede police cars.
"They are intimidating us, trying to scare us," said another villager by telephone from Wukan. "No one dares go out. People aren't working. Youngsters don't want to get arrested so they stay indoors and children aren't going to school."
In November, Guangdong's high-flying Party leader, Wang Yang, due for promotion to leadership ranks next year, stressed a need to be more proactive in addressing grassroots conflicts.
(Additional reporting by Huang Yan in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie and Ron Popeski)