06/11/2011, 00.00
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Hubei: thousands take to the streets to protest the suspicious death of a popular official

A provincial official, Ran Jianxin, died in custody after he was arrested on false corruption charges. Torture is suspected. For many people, he was the only one who defended them from unjust seizures. For this reason, they have taken to the streets to protest. In his last letter, Ran makes grave accusations against his superiors.
Shanghai (AsiaNews/Agencies) – More than 2,000 protesters yesterday attacked city hall in Lichuan, a city of some 850,000 people in Hubei province, for a fourth day in a row after the mysterious death of a respected official during interrogation by prosecutors in nearby Badong County. For many residents, the violent action is also a protest against ongoing forced seizure of land and property.

Ran Jianxin, 49, was a local sub-district director. He was arrested on 26 May by the County Procuratorate on suspicion of taking bribes in connection with land requisitions and forced demolitions. He died ten days later, on 4 June, after allegedly being tortured. His family said his body had wounds and bore the marks of torture.

Local media report that residents in at least five villages are saying that Ran had refused to demolish forcibly a number of homes following expropriation orders issued by higher authorities, including Li Wei, the city's deputy party boss and head of the local party disciplinary watchdog. Because of his refusal to execute orders, Ran was charged with corruption and arrested. For residents, he was the only official who defended their rights.

On Tuesday, thousands of locals took to the streets, confronted by thousands of police in anti-riot gear. On Thursday, the angry crowd tried to break into the no-go area around city hall, overturning iron fences and using plastic bottles, eggs and other objects against police. About 20 people were arrested.

Following the protests, the authorities placed at least five officials under investigation for Ran’s death. On Thursday, the Badong County Prosecutor was arrested and his chief had to resign. Li Wei too has been suspended and is now being investigated.

In his last letter before his death, Ran wrote, “From December to January, the investigation team restricted the personal freedom of all my friends, colleagues and anyone who has contact with me, and doesn't allow them to sleep or even sit down for 20 hours a day, in order to collect evidence [I took bribes]."

Mass protests related to economics are rising in China. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest against corruption and forced expropriations.

According to Borge Bakken, a Hong Kong University professor of sociology who focuses on crime, the number of what the government defines as "mass incidents" have soared in China. Official numbers put such incidents at 127,000 last year, up from under 9,000 in the mid-1990s, he said.

More importantly, this kind of mass protest has migrated. Once concentrated in the countryside, it is increasingly an urban phenomenon, often involving clashes with police.

Despite pledges of zero tolerance against corruption by the authorities, the problem is growing rather than receding.

The Communist Party's own data paint a grim picture, with over 146,500 officials punished last year for graft—though fewer than 3.5 per cent were above county-level rank.

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