Two leaders of a mass protest against illegal land grabs in the Guangdong fishing village of Wukan were released on bail yesterday.
One broke down in tears when he heard that fellow protester Xue Jinbo had died in custody.
Hong Ruichao was arrested at the Renmin restaurant in Wukan along with Xue and Zhang Jiancheng on December 9 and subjected to more than 30 hours of interrogation.
'I was grilled over and over about whether the village's petition was backed by a foreign power,' he said. 'I told them repeatedly our appeals were purely against land grabs.'
Hong was locked in a cell with 16 cellmates after his interrogation. Xue died in police custody on December 11. Police say he died of a heart attack but villagers suspect he was beaten to death.
'I believe Xue was beaten because it almost happened to me when I entered the cell but I begged my cellmates not to lay their fists on me,' Hong said. 'I saw Xue's body being carried out on the morning on December 11, just before lunch. One of the four men who carried his body out told me Xue was cold all over.'
Another protest leader, Zhuang Liehong, was arrested on December 2 in Shunde near Guangzhou while attending a friend's wedding banquet and was kept in a detention centre in the city. He hugged village leader Lin Zuluan when he arrived home and they both wept.
'My mind is a total mess now. I've just learnt of Xue's death. I can't accept the reality,' he said, adding that he had been interrogated for 20 hours but refusing to elaborate.
Meanwhile, in a sign that Wukan's protest has set off ripples across Guangdong, seven villagers aged between 21 to 82 from the remote Leizhou Peninsula in western Guangdong, drove more than 1,000 kilometres to Wukan, pleading for help in their fight against forced demolitions.
He Xin, 21, from Leizhou's Shanganzai Chenzhai village, said he had read about Wukan in a local newspaper on Thursday morning and immediately set off for the village.
'We drove non-stop on highways as we were afraid we would be blocked by Leizhou officials.' He said. 'I think there is hope in Wukan. They too are suppressed by corrupt officials but there is a government working group helping them.'
But the villagers from Leizhou were told to go to the Lufeng government headquarters to look for the Guangdong provincial government working group. When they got here, Cai Huimei, 82, sat on the floor outside and cried.
'My house, my quilt, my rice are all buried in debris, torn down by Leizhou mayor Liu Yaohui for no reason,' Cai cried. 'The Spring Festival is coming and I have nowhere to go.'
He said they would try their luck in Lufeng but if there was no hope, they would drive to Beijing to petition.
Wukan villagers said their problems were being addressed gradually. They were now conducting a survey of land that was seized without proper procedures and compensation.
Yang Semao, chairman of Wukan's temporary village representative committee, said all stolen land must be returned and those who sold it cheaply must be compensated.
'They have assigned a party chief and deputy party chiefs for the village,' Yang said. 'We have no say over the party's business in our village but we will elect our village committee director with fair, open and public elections before Lunar New Year. Everyone will get a vote.'
The year that Peng Pai started the Chinese peasants movement to defend their land rights in Haifeng, 30 kilometres from Wukan