Questions remain over the death of a 46-year-old farmer killed in a fire in Shandong, following a dispute over forced demolition.

A fire broke out at around Monday noon at a residence in Houdonggu village, Pingyi County, according to the local government’s news centre. Police and firemen rushed to the scene and villager Zhang Jimin’s body was soon discovered.

The victim Zhang Jimin’s house on fire. Photo:

A spokesman from the Pingyi County Police Bureau told state media The Paper the victim had locked himself in the house and set it on fire, and that he was unsure whether the case had to do with forced demolition.

The official account was challenged by Zhang’s cousin, who said Zhang burned to death during the process of the forced demolition. He said a group of 50 demolitions workers led by the local government officials surrounded the house and threw gas tanks at it. The house soon caught fire.

Pictures of smoke emerging from a village house and others depicting a charred body on the ground have been widely circulated on social media.

Smoke emerging from the house. Photo:

Village head Gao Xueming confirmed the area was a site slated for demolition and demolition works had almost been completed. Villagers speculated the incident occurred because Zhang’s residence was a “nail house”, meaning a home belonging to residents who refused to leave to make way for construction.

Zhang’s cousin said Zhang’s wife had also been beaten up by unidentified assailants on the way back from sending her two daughters to school on the day of the incident and was currently staying at a hospital at Pingyi County.

The Pingyi County local government told The Paper the incident was “sensitive” and officials were dealing with it. Authorities also said they would severely punish those who “created and spread rumours” about the incident.

Forced demolitions in China have seen many people forcibly evicted from their homes without compensation, and are a major source of social instability and public protest. Forced demolitions in rural areas to make way for development are especially commonplace. Incidents involving forced demolitions are often violent. In 2011, a farmer detonated three bombs at government buildings after his home was demolished to build a highway. In the same year, forced evictions in the village of Wukan triggered large-scale protests.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.