BEIJING – Several local officials in eastern China have been detained after a man died in a fire at his home while defending it from a demolition gang, state media reported Friday, underscoring continuing violence in the country's frequent land disputes.
Those suspected of culpability in the death of homeowner Zhang Jimin had been directly responsible for an urban renewal project in Difang township in the Shandong province city of Linyi, the Xinhua News Agency and state broadcaster CCTV said.
Zhang was burned to death and his house gutted in Monday's incident, which followed a prolonged disagreement over terms of compensation for the demolished home.
Cellphone footage of the incident circulating widely on the Internet shows what appears to be a group of men throwing stones and gasoline-filled containers into the house, which quickly begins billowing smoke while flames shoot from windows.
The use of thugs and strong-arm tactics in housing demolitions is relatively common in China, where local governments are heavily reliant on land sales to top up their coffers. Corrupt officials can pocket generous kickbacks through collusion with real estate developers, giving them even more incentive to force out incalcitrant homeowners.
Among those detained were Difang's Communist Party secretary Wei Yunbo and Guan Yansheng, party secretary of the township's Donggu community, Xinhua said. The total number of people detained was not immediately clear. Calls to the local government offices rang unanswered on Friday.
An investigation at the city government level was ordered after the video footage and eyewitness reports raised questions about official claims that Zhang had set the fire himself.
In a Wednesday post on its official microblog, the government of Pingyi county, which directly oversees Difang township, had said that Zhang had purchased gasoline and that his death was a matter of "his own behavior."