BEIJING — Police tightened their grip today on a village in southern China where protesting residents say officers beat a teenage girl to death over the weekend.
The confrontation in Sanjiao, part of prosperous Guangdong province, is the latest in a series of clashes sparked by allegations of corruption and abusive land policies, along with growing suspicion among poor Chinese that the nation's economic growth has come at their expense.
The girl, whose age has been reported as 13 or 15, was reportedly beaten to death Saturday during a clash between police and protesters who had gathered outside government offices and blocked a highway.
The protesters were outraged about what they called broken promises of compensation for land seized for development.
Local authorities were unavailable for comment Tuesday, and police declined to comment on the incident. In a rare move, however, the official New China News Agency issued a statement denying violence on the part of the police and blaming the villagers for inciting clashes
But several villagers reached by telephone Tuesday told a different story. Over the last week, they said, police used force trying to quell the growing unrest.
A resident who identified himself only as Wu said resentment rose when residents concluded that local officials had embezzled funds earmarked for displaced farmers.
"I saw police beating people, five or six people every day," Wu said. "Every street corner has four or five policemen now, and in the evenings there are heavily armed police. There are five or six trucks of them."
A farmer with the surname Yang said Tuesday that he had just returned from the dead girl's home. Her parents traveled to nearby city of Zhongshan on Tuesday to make funeral arrangements, he said.
Hong Kong media reported that the girl's family was paid as much as $25,000 to endorse a government assertion that she died of a heart attack.
In December, police fired on villagers in Dongzhou, another village in Guangdong province, during protests involving a power plant. Authorities eventually acknowledged that three protesters had been killed, but local reports were that as many as 20 had died. China tends to censor individual accounts of unrest but acknowledged they totaled 74,000 in 2004.
Analysts say it is no accident that higher-profile and violent disturbances are breaking out in the commercially strong province, which borders Hong Kong. This area, a darling of foreign investors, is suffering adverse consequences of prosperity, including environmental degradation, corruption and rising tension between the haves and have-nots.
With soaring land prices making commercial development more lucrative than agriculture, local officials have been evicting farmers in greater numbers, leaving residents increasingly dispirited and desperate. That policy also has led to increased reports of kickbacks and outright embezzlement.
The central government shares the blame, some add, for not reforming the nation's legal and land-compensation systems.
In Sanjiao, residents say they were promised $2,500 per mu of land, about one-seventh of an acre, along with an unspecified annual stipend. This would have given Wu's family about $10,000, he said.
Instead, most families received only a $50 annual stipend -- in an area of rapidly rising costs. Local officials reportedly sold the land for six times the price promised to farmers.
Wang Yukai of the National School of Administration acknowledged that China's disadvantaged are in dire straits but said protesters should have obtained police permission before taking to the streets.
Sanjiao residents counter that repeated efforts to work through the system were ignored. "Government officials all protect each other, and now people's lives lie in the balance," said Chen, a shop owner. "In China, we have a saying that life is sacred. Even if the girl's parents were paid $25,000, how can this justify taking a life?"
Ding Li in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.