For Lin Yudui, it started out as a relatively peaceful protest of 1,000 villagers against a plan by local officials to seize land to build a power plant. The 26-year-old air conditioner salesman had returned to his home town of Dongzhou to get married, but instead his family this week buried him after a secret funeral. Hundreds of riot police and soldiers, plus several tanks, were called in to disperse the protesters with tear gasnot that unusual in a country where the number of demonstrations over everything from environmental degradation to land seizures are increasing every year. Such unrest has spooked the ruling Communist Party, which perceives any social instability as a potential threat to its own authority. In 2004, China was rocked by 74,000 "mass incidents," according to Beijing's own estimate. "Villagers are emboldened when they hear of other protests," says Joseph Cheng, a political-science professor at the City University of Hong Kong. "That has to worry the central government when all it wants is for GDP rates to go up and for people to keep quiet about the unfortunate byproducts of Chinese economic growth."
What happened next in Dongzhou, though, was far from an ordinary protest. Just after 7 p.m., say two locals reached by TIME by phone, riot police opened fire on the villagers, who responded by throwing homemade explosives normally used by local fishermen to stun fish. By the time the smoke had cleared several hours later, Lin and at least five others were dead, according to the two eyewitnesses, making the Dongzhou riot one of the deadliest incidents in recent years. "We never imagined that they would shoot people," says a Dongzhou housewife surnamed Huang, whose father was injured in the fight. On Saturday, a city-level government report acknowledged the incident and said three villagers had been killed but insisted that the police had been forced to shoot in self-defense. Three locals, however, say the death toll was higher, citing six bodies that remained in Donghzou and alleging that several others were dragged away by police and have not been seen since. "It's more than three dead," insists one villager who wishes to remain anonymous. "They are lying."
Guangdong provincial officials did, however, announce on Sunday that a local police commander had been detained for “wrongful actions” in connection with the deaths. News of potential disciplinary action against a top official contrasted with Saturday's city-level report, which blamed villagers for instigating the violence. Some villagers now hope that justice is on its way. "I have heard that the central government will send some representatives to investigate," says the villager. "Maybe they will tell the truth about what happened."
But others aren't convinced. Although some of the victims' relatives were being pressured to hand over the bodies to the police, Lin's family kept his bullet-scarred corpse on ice at home for several days before burying it in a secret location. "If we had let the police take the body, they might have pretended that nothing illegal happened," Lin's brother told TIME on Tuesday after the clandestine burial. "We took pictures of the bullet holes and have the body to prove what really took place." Still, he says, there's not much else he and his family can do. "We cannot take any more suffering," he says, noting that most villagers are hiding at home because they are frightened by the heavy riot-police presence outside. "We know that if we try to fight, it will just end in more tragedy." Meanwhile Lin's fiancee, who had been filling out paperwork for her marriage just days before the clash, doesn't quite understand why she must sequester herself from the police: "Why are they treating us like enemies when all we want is justice?"
Although no amount of government redress will bring back Lin Yudui, the public disciplining of a top police commanderunheard-of in previous confrontations between police and protestorssuggests that China’s authorities have realized that in an era of high-speed communication, killings in a remote village can’t be swept under the rug. Still, the state-run media has published only official accounts of the tragedy, and multiple roadblocks near Dongzhou ensure that journalists don’t investigate too closely. China’s future may depend on which aspect of the Dongzhou tragedy dominates its political system: Brute force by local police, or increasing accountability from higher-level authorities.