A brutal attack on a man advising Chinese villagers seeking to oust an allegedly corrupt local politician appears to mark a savage new turn in the rising reports of violence seething through China's vast countryside.
Lu Banglie was dragged from his taxi and severely beaten, possibly to death, by a gang of men outside the village of Taishi on Saturday night, according to a Western reporter who witnessed the incident.
Authorities have refused to comment on Saturday's incident and Lu, a low-level elected official in his native province of Hubei, has not been seen or heard from since.
Lu had been driving with Ben Joffe-Walt, a Shanghai-based correspondent for British newspaper The Guardian, and a translator. According to Joffe-Walt's article about the incident, some of the men who stopped the taxi at the edge of the village were wearing police and military uniforms but none sought to intervene in the beating. Some of the men appeared to be drunk, he said.
With Lu lying bloody and unconscious by the road, Joffe-Walt and his translator were taken to a township government office where they were interrogated by officials who accused them of violating Chinese rules covering the activities of foreign correspondents.
Similar incidents recently reported around China have included deadly attacks on protesters, but Saturday's beating was the first apparent attempt to maim or kill an outside adviser.
Reports from Taishi have described villagers fearful of attacks by thugs hired by the local government. Local people who have spoken to Western journalists by telephone have mostly done so only on condition of anonymity.
The attack came a day after a French reporter and one working for the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post were stopped at another entrance to the village and shoved around.
Leu Siewying, the Post reporter, said all entrances to Taishi were being watched and people not from the village were being stopped from entering.
Recent months have seen a dramatic increase in reports of rural protests fed by anger over corruption, land seizures and a yawning wealth gap that government scholars say now threatens social stability.
The government says about 70,000 such conflicts occurred last year, although many more are believed to go unreported.
Communist Party leaders say they're concerned and want disputes handled peacefully. But the central government has been reluctant to exert pressure on local authorities with whom they share a deep distrust of greater political openness and accountability.
The conflict in Taishi began this summer after residents started a movement to recall elected village chief Chen Jingshen over the alleged embezzlement of 100 million yuan (US$12 million; Ђ10 million) from the leasing of village land.
Taishi lies just south of the manufacturing hub of Guangzhou in an area where farms and fish ponds are rapidly being converted for factories and apartments.
Chinese law allows for recalls of village chiefs _ the only officials directly elected rather than appointed by the Communist Party.
Police earlier broke up a hunger strike by villagers and injured several in a Sept. 12 raid on Chen's office where residents had been standing guard to prevent the removal of accounting ledgers they said contained evidence of his graft. Other villagers have been detained for various periods and police last week also formally arrested a lawyer acting as an adviser, apparently on charges of endangering state security.
An officer who answered the phone at police headquarters in Panyu district, which oversees Taishi, refused comment and referred calls to superiors in Guangzhou who said they had no information about the reports.
People who answered phones at local hospitals said they had no record of Lu being admitted.
Mobile phones of local activists who earlier provided information about the case were turned off. Leu said she had also lost phone contact with activists, which was why she attempted to enter the village on Friday, the day of the scheduled recall vote. It wasn't clear whether the vote had gone ahead or what the result had been.
Joffe-Walt could not be contacted and was believed to have left China.
A Guardian spokesman contacted at the paper's offices in the British city of Manchester said it was not commenting further on the incident and declined to give information about Joffe-Walt's whereabouts. The spokesman asked not to be identified by name, citing standard company practice, AP reported.