URUMQI - Six people have been detained on suspicion of attacking a journalist, police in Kuitun, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, announced on Monday afternoon.
The police said it was an ordinary criminal case and refuted previous speculation that the victim was attacked because his reports had angered some people.
Sun Hongjie, 38, a reporter with the North Xinjiang Morning Post, was attacked by an unidentified group at about 1 am on Saturday at a construction site. He was declared brain-dead later that morning after receiving hospital treatment.
The attack, first revealed online through micro blogs by Sun's colleagues, was widely considered to have been an act of revenge for Sun's reports disclosing the dark side of society.
According to a statement published on the police website in Ili Kazak autonomous prefecture, Sun was attacked after he fell foul of a cyber friend, who then asked five others to "give him a lesson".
One of the six suspects, surnamed Bu, was offended by Sun's abusive words during their online chatting and allegedly asked five friends to "teach Sun a lesson" after Sun invited him for a drink on Friday night. They followed the two early on Saturday morning, beat up Sun and smashed his cell phone.
During the attack, a suspect surnamed Liu allegedly hit Sun on the head with clumps of earth, the police statement said.
The attackers fled without taking Sun's money or belongings, Yuan Yin, Sun's colleague, wrote on his blog on Sunday. Although the blogger later deleted this detail from the blog, it aroused much speculation among netizens about the reason for the attack.
Sun's case then aroused heated discussion on the Internet and many blogs and online forums retold the story of the attack.
People expressed sympathy for Sun online, as most of them suspected the journalist, who had written a series of news stories exposing people's improper behavior and activities, might have offended some groups who retaliated by having him attacked.
"Sun is one of my best friends. I was shocked and saddened when I heard the news that he had been beaten up. He was a very good and responsible journalist," said one of Sun's colleagues who refused to be named.
"The police caught several students aged 18 and 19 on Sunday night," Miao, a manager with the North Xinjiang Morning Post, told China Daily. "Sun had a quarrel with them and was beaten by the group.
"It's just an ordinary criminal case and the reason for Sun's brain-death is not as speculated online," said Miao, who claimed that the suspects had admitted to police that they had quarreled with Sun and then beaten him badly.
Many of Sun's colleagues expressed doubts about the reasons for the journalist's death when discussing it online.
The North Xinjiang Morning Post, owned by Xinjiang Great Morning Post Group, publishes in Shihezi, Kuitun, Karamay and other cities in north Xinjiang.
This year there has been a series of cases of journalists being attacked or disturbed while doing their jobs.
In August, Yichun police in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province apologized for mistakenly detaining four reporters covering a plane crash there.
Zhou Wenfu, a Beijing television reporter, was punched on Aug 1 when he tried to interview Guo Degang, China's leading stand-up comedian, at his villa.
Zhou was trying to verify reports that Guo had illegally extended his property into public green space. One of Guo's associates, Li Hebiao, opened the door and then beat Zhou about the head and arms.
Li apologized later and was fined 200 yuan ($30) and put under a seven-day police detention.
On July 30, four men from the Bawang Group broke into the Shanghai office of the National Business Daily and manhandled reporters. Bawang Group later apologized to the newspaper.
On July 29, journalist Chen Xiaoying from the China Times newspaper was beaten at a place where she was asked to meet an anonymous caller who had promised to give her a news tip. Before the attack, Chen had disclosed a sex scandal involving a Shenzhen businessman.
On July 28, police in Suichang county, Zhejiang province, put Qiu Ziming, a reporter with Beijing-based Economic Observer, on its wanted list after Qiu reported suspected irregular dealings by a local company. Qiu later received an apology from the police.