STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Farmers in south China have barricaded themselves in their village. They're demanding free elections. Residents of Shangpu are protesting against their own village chief. They say he sold their out from under them and then sent armed men to attack them. Government land grabs have repeatedly become political flashpoints in China and this is the second village uprising in the region in 15 months.
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from inside that barricaded village.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Now I'm entering Shangpu Village, where the uprising was and you actually have - we're on a big highway and you can see all these tents set up. There's actually a wall of rocks and sticks that's set up as a barricade. And there's basically an encampment here to block officials and police from coming in. You can see in front of me burned out cars, cars flipped over. Smashed. Wow.
Villagers say the thugs arrived in hard hats for their own protection. Li, a 60-year-old farmer, is nursing a broken knee - swollen and purple - from a brick he says was thrown by a thug.
LI #1: (Through translator) When they got out of their cars, they used hoes to attack us. We acted in self-defense and threw rocks at them. Afterwards, villagers came out and rang gongs to alert people.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING AND FIGHTING)
LANGFITT: A cell phone video shows the villagers fighting back with bamboo poles from a construction site. You can even hear the gongs.
Again, Mr. Li.
#1: (Through translator) We surrounded them and they ran into the fields beside the road. They were outnumbered. Did you see the cars over there? Twenty-nine of them.
LANGFITT: Villagers say the thugs were sent to crush opposition before a ground-breaking for a new electric cable factory to be built on their fields. Farmers say the village chief, Li Baoyu, sold off the land they were assigned by the government to a local developer.
Under a secret contract villagers say they never signed, they were to receive about a thousand dollars an acre in compensation. But Li says they didn't want to leave the land. Without fields to grow their sweet potatoes, spinach and papaya, they'd have no livelihood.
#1: (Through translator) We can only do some odd jobs making less than $10 a day just to get by. This plot of land should be preserved forever for generations to come.
LANGFITT: The farmers say village chief was appointed, not elected. They're now negotiating with county officials. A neighbor, also surnamed Li, listed their demands.
LI #2: (Through translator) Those attackers must be brought to justice. Government employees knowingly approved the project. Those people must take responsibility. What we really hope to see is a legitimate village leader elected through a legitimate process.
LANGFITT: Local authorities have been somewhat responsive. Police have arrested the village head and eight of the suspected thugs, according to the newspaper Southern Daily. But villagers say land grabs like this are common. And the answer is a better system. Again, the neighbor, Li.
#2: (Through translator) This is our current problem in reforming the system in rural areas. Reform means there must be a supervision mechanism. If we had supervision checking on the village committee, it would not have been able to secretly sell the land.
LANGFITT: Another problem is rural lawlessness and the tight relationship between business and government. For instance, the man who wants to build the factory is also a local Communist Party chief. As is often the case, the farmers blame local officials and are careful to voice support for the central government. Mr. Li, the one with the broken knee, even worried how this story might play.
#1: (Through translator) If you publish this in America, will it tarnish the Communist Party's image?
LANGFITT: Even if the farmers get elections, there is no guarantee it will solve all their problems. The village of Wukan - about two hours away - elected its own leaders last year after a similar land grab. But the new officials were inexperienced and have struggled to govern.
Lin Zulian is the new village party secretary. In a recent TV interview, he talked about the difficulties of operating amid constant public criticism.
LIN ZULIAN: (Through translator) I'm afraid to answer the phone, afraid to see people. If I tell the truth, it doesn't work. If I lie, it's even worse. Everything is hard to say.
LANGFITT: The inner workings of government, he says, are complicated.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Guangdong Province. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.