SHANGHAI—The mysterious death in police custody almost a week ago of a low-level Chinese bureaucrat who challenged a land deal backed by higher-level officials sparked violent public protests in the central province of Hubei and a shakeup among the local leaders.
The violent clashes this week in Lichuan, suppressed by a heavy paramilitary presence, appear to mark the latest tumult in China over land rights. While such disputes have occurred for years, the issue has been especially prominent in recent weeks, as ethnic Mongolians in northern China rioted over mine expansion and a man in the southeast blew up three government buildings, apparently to protest the demolition of his house.
The Hubei unrest followed the June 4 death of Ran Jianxin, who died in official custody while being interrogated over allegations that he took bribes, authorities said. His death is being investigated. Residents in the small city of Lichuan, where Mr. Ran held Communist Party positions and where he died, took to the streets in protest apparently over their suspicion that Mr. Ran had been framed by more senior officials over his efforts in recent years to block a government-backed land deal.
In a brief statement Friday, the city government of Lichuan underscored the gravity of the public anger, saying that since Tuesday local police had faced crowds of as many as 1,500 people outside government offices, and police officers were sometimes hit with thrown objects. “The police took action rapidly according to the law and properly handled this group incident,” the statement said, adding that the situation was under control by Thursday.
The city government said in a separate statement later that the city’s Vice Communist Party Secretary, Li Wei, was in custody and being investigated over the matter. At least one other official was ousted from his position in the city, while two police officers were under arrest, the government said.
Borge Bakken, a Hong Kong University professor of sociology who focuses on crime, said the number of what the government defines as “mass incidents” have soared for years in China. Official numbers put such incidents at 127,000 last year from under 9,000 in the mid-1990s, he said.
But unrest in the past typically took place in the countryside, he added. “Now you find a lot of these things going on in the cities” as public anger focuses on land disputes, corruption allegations and distrust of police, he said.
Pictures posted on social media, including Sina Corp.’s Weibo microblogging service, suggested the protests were met with heavy force and that the situation remained tense on Friday.
Numerous photos and video clips posted online appeared to show police attacking rioters with sticks, as well as the mobilization of a fleet of armored personnel carriers and riot-control vehicles. The origin of the uploaded photos couldn’t be verified, but individuals answering telephone calls at various businesses in Lichuan on Friday said the violent protests took place and that heavy police presence continues.
In crowded China, land development is a continuing source of tension—and opportunity for official corruption.
Premier Wen Jiabao this year described corruption as China’s biggest threat and said cleaning up depend on systemic restructuring. The Communist Party’s own statistics paint a grim picture, with over 146,500 officials punished last year for graft—though fewer than 3.5% were above county-level rank, according to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
In Lichuan, a relatively small city of 850,000 rich in natural gas and home to ethnic Tu and Miao minority people, Mr. Ran became well known in recent years for being sympathetic to public challenges of a redevelopment plan backed by his superiors in the city government, according to reports in government-run media.
But by last year, Mr. Ran himself was being questioned by local authorities over suspicion he took bribes in construction deals. The Xinhua news agency said he was formally arrested May 26 and then died in custody on Saturday.