By Sui-Lee Wee
WUKAN, China (Reuters) - Residents of a rebel village in southern China vowed on Monday to march on a local government office in protest over lost land and a suspicious death, despite rumors that police could quell their revolt, a humbling rebuff to the ruling Communist Party.
For a week, Wukan, a village in Guangdong province, has driven off officials and police, and held protests attracting residents outraged by the death in custody of Xue Jinbo, an organizer of a months-long campaign over former farmland that residents say was taken illegally.
At a rally in the Wukan square, a village representative, Yang Semao, signaled that the residents would not back down. He called for a protest march on Wednesday to the nearby urban authority, stepping up their campaign of disobedience.
Hundreds of villagers applauded and shouted "Good!" when Yang said protest leaders were preparing a new letter to the government calling for the return of their land and answers about the death of Xue Jinbo.
Although they have denounced local officials, the residents said they held out hope that the central government would step in and redress their grievances over Xue's death and the swathe of former farmland they said was seized for development.
But some also said they were braced for a crackdown, and village men guarded barricades to block police.
"If they have guns, we have rocks," said a villager surnamed Li. "If they want us to die, it's OK too. We don't have any land left anyway."
At night, 50 or so men stood watch at a road turnoff leading into the besieged village, and solemnly explained how they would defend against a crackdown, certain it would come.
"Because of this land, we are not afraid to die," said another villager surnamed Lin. "We'll fight them to the death. If our village wasn't so united, this would not be possible."
On deserted roads, men carried large sticks as they patrolled on motorcycles.
"We can't sleep well at night, we know they will snatch the village representatives," said a villager surnamed Zhu.
President Hu Jintao, due to retire late next year, has made building a more "harmonious society" a centerpiece of his government.
"TRUST IN CENTRAL GOVERNMENT"
Although protests such as Wukan's do not threaten Communist Party power, they lay bare discontent against corruption, land seizures and official highhandness that is corroding party authority at the grassroots.
Residents say hundreds of hectares of land was acquired unfairly by corrupt officials in collusion with developers. Anger in the village boiled over in September this year after repeated appeals to higher officials. Residents ransacked a government office and skirmished with police.
The government of Shanwei, the area including Wukan, said last week that some Communist Party members and officials accused of misdeeds over the disputed land were detained and that the main land development project had been suspended.
But villagers' fury has turned to Xue's death -- which the government has said was caused by a heart attack, not physical abuse -- and demands that officials hand his body over to his family.
Villagers spoke of their desire for the central government to intervene and took pains to emphasize that their calls for democracy and elections are directed at the local government and not Communist leaders in Beijing.
"We trust in the central government," said a villager. "Why should the central government persecute us villagers? The central government is the farmers' parents."
At one house, bags of rice were stockpiled -- donations from wealthy villagers to be distributed to the other villagers.
Despite the threat of a crackdown, there was little palpable fear on the streets. People went about their business in the narrow alleys and children played.
"With so much media attention on it, I don't think they'll make a wild move," said Lin Zulan, 65, referring to a possible crackdown. "If anything happens, we'll sit down and not allow them to touch us.
China's state-controlled media have reported sporadically on the protests, only citing official statements. Checks for "Wukan" on microblogging sites have been blocked, reflecting official wariness about spreading news about the confrontation.
(Writing by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ron Popeski)