Chinese villagers describe police beatings in 'wild crackdown' on protest

Hong Kong rights activists fear Tuesday's violence marks a last-ditch push to silence Wukan, which received international attention when a 2011 uprising over land grabs forced authorities to back down and grant local direct elections.

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A portrait of the jailed Wukan village chief Lin Zuluan is displayed by protesters demanding the release of Lin outside China Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

WUKAN, China (Reuters) - Residents of a Chinese village once seen as a cradle of grassroots democracy were in shock on Wednesday after a "wild crackdown" by police in clashes with protesters which they said led to about 70 people being detained.

Hong Kong rights activists fear Tuesday's violence marks a last-ditch push to silence Wukan, a southern fishing village in Guangdong province, which received international attention when a 2011 uprising over land grabs forced authorities to back down and grant local direct elections.

"Most people have been scared badly," said a villager named Chen.

"This time it was a wild crackdown. They went after everyone, chasing them up into their houses, beating people."

As she spoke, peeking nervously from behind curtains in her home, scores of riot and security police tightened a cordon around Wukan. Violence flared in the 10,000-strong hamlet early on Tuesday as police launched pre-dawn raids on homes seeking leaders of protests that had rumbled since June after the arrest of a popular leader. Village chief Lin Zuluan, one of the last of the 2011 protest leaders to remain in office, was jailed this month for three years on graft and other charges. Villagers threw bricks at police as they advanced with shields, batons and helmets, firing rubber bullets and using teargas. Some residents suffered wounds to their legs, mobile phone footage seen by Reuters showed. Many said the violence was worse than that in 2011, when the village was locked down for several months. Repeated calls to the Guangdong provincial government for comment went unanswered. Tension rose again as dusk fell on Wednesday, with uniformed and plain-clothed police starting more house-to-house searches, seeking both protest organisers and journalists, villagers reported. The sound of police speaking through loud hailers echoed through the streets. It was not clear what they were saying.

WRISTS BOUND

While low-level democratic experiments have been tried in villages across China, Wukan's took place in the glare of both domestic and international publicity - and marked a rare moment when Communist Party officials backed down in the face of protest. Beijing leaders are fearful of growing calls for democracy and losing their grip on power. Weeks of "umbrella revolution" pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, to the southwest of Wukan, in 2014 presented Beijing with one of its biggest political challenges in decades. According to the mobile phone footage seen by Reuters, elderly villagers and youngsters in school uniforms were among those detained in Wukan on Tuesday. Three rows of villagers could be seen in a police station, their wrists bound with white nylon cords.

Blue teargas cartridges could still be seen strewn in the narrow alleyways, with black burn marks on concrete.

"The whole village hasn’t done anything illegal, we just want old Lin (Zuluan) to come out and to get our land back," said a villager surnamed Zhang. "But they don’t care if we’re guilty or not guilty. They just beat us."

Lufeng county police, who oversee Wukan, said in an earlier microblog post that 13 people had been arrested for organising illegal assemblies and using threats to force villagers to join protests. The blog has not been updated since Tuesday. Hong Kong media have reported that the police have also televised photographs of five village protest leaders, offering 100,000 yuan ($15,000) rewards for information on their whereabouts. A small group of Hong Kong democracy activists and politicians marched to Beijing's official liaison office in the city on Wednesday to show solidarity. Legislator Kwok Ka-ki warned that Hong Kong people must not remain silent, saying Hong Kong could one day face a similar crackdown. Chinese state media coverage of Wukan has been limited to brief statements from the local government, posted on social media, about the unrest. The comment function has been disabled under many of those reports.

By James Pomfret

(Writing by Greg Torode; Additional reporting by Hong Kong bureau and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel)

WUKAN ACCIDENT

WUKAN, CHINA (Reuters) - When the first wave of riot police swept into the southern Chinese "democracy village" of Wukan shortly after 3am Tuesday, some breaking through gates with wooden battering rams, frightened residents sounded gongs to raise the alarm. The gongs are now silent, and for the first time in nearly three months, Wukan's streets are closed to protest as anti-riot squads seal the area and sever communications. With dozens of villagers detained and arrested after running skirmishes with police, local authorities appear determined to keep it that way. That could finally end an extraordinary five-year-old experiment in grassroots democracy in an authoritarian state. While villages across China conduct low-level elections under close Communist Party management, Wukan's followed an uprising in 2011 that forced local Party chiefs to back down under the glare of domestic and international media attention. The fishing village in southeastern Guangdong was then in open rebellion over a land grab by local officials, who were forced to flee. A stand-off with police ended when residents were granted the right to hold secret ballots for its village leaders.
Over the following years, the early hope of the "Wukan Spring" evaporated as many of its new elected leaders were detained, pushed into exile or pressured to quit their posts. The latest protests started in June after the arrest of respected village chief Lin Zuluan, 72, one of the 2011 protest leaders to remain in office. They surged again last week when Lin was jailed for three years on graft and other charges. A televised confession convinced few in the village. Roused by the hammering gongs in the pre-dawn darkness on Tuesday, hundreds of residents spilled on to the streets and howled out a series of chants.

"Long live the Chinese Communist Party ... Return Secretary Lin to us ... Return our land to us."

A villager surnamed Lin, who described the raid as a complete surprise, said: "We didn’t do anything violent. It was all peaceful when they attacked us."

RUBBER BULLETS

Veterans of the 2011 campaign said the police action this time, involving an estimated 300 to 400 officers, was more forceful than anything they experienced during the 2011 stand-off. As dawn approached, the villagers began hurling bricks at the officers, who gathered in tight formation, clad in helmets, green khaki fatigues, and full-body shields. Firing rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets, the police blocked streets and prevented any advance by villagers. By Tuesday night, it was quiet, if tense. Some residents sported large red welts they said were caused by rubber bullets.

"It felt like we were pieces of tofu, beaten and smashed by them," said a villager surnamed Chen on Wednesday, who peered nervously through a crack in the drawn curtains of her bedroom as she spoke.

She said she feared the security forces would come after her for having been in touch with outsiders and sharing photos, video and information on the crackdown. Nearby a large group of villagers gathered beside an open-air village stage decorated with dragons.

"They were like gangsters, not police … This government is too corrupt," one said. "I’m too disappointed with China. (China's president) Xi Jinping hasn’t helped at all."

Wukan was a problem Xi, who took office in 2012, inherited, with the first rallies and petition campaigns dating back to 2009 and a movement called the Wukan Hot-Blooded Patriotic Youth League. Patrick Poon, Hong Kong-based China researcher for Amnesty International, said it was possible that Xi's government wanted rid of the Wukan headache once and for all.

"We have seen they have used a strong hand in dealing with other dissidents ... Under Xi's regime the crackdown on such democratic protests has stepped up," he said.

Though the scale of the police response was a surprise to some Wukan residents, the likelihood of an official response had been building in the week leading up to Lin's sentencing. Days beforehand, letters from the Lufeng police, which oversees the village, were sent to residents warning that if the protests did not stop by Sept. 10, action would be taken. On Sept. 11, the Guangdong government's Southern Daily newspaper carried a front-page story promising better communication with Wukan villagers and noted some eight square kilometres of land had been given back.

But it insisted that seeking the release of Lin was an "unreasonable act", and that "criminals should be punished according to law". Since the crackdown, Chinese state media coverage of Wukan has been limited to brief statements about the unrest from the local government on social media. Calls to the Guangdong provincial government for comment went unanswered.

Wukan's residents remain adamant.

"The whole village hasn’t done anything illegal; we just want old Lin to come out and to get our land back," said a villager surnamed Zhang. "But they don’t care if we’re guilty or not. They just beat us."

By James Pomfret
(Additional reporting by Venus Wu and the Hong Kong bureau, writing by Greg Torode; Editing by Will Waterman)

A woman who claimed injured during the violence on Tuesday rides a scooter in Wukan, Guangdong province, China, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A woman who claimed injured during the violence on Tuesday rides a scooter in Wukan, Guangdong province, China, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Protesters demonstrate with a placard which reads "Support Wukan village" outside China Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China September 14, 2016.      REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Protesters demonstrate with a placard which reads "Support Wukan village" outside China Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
People gather at the temple after Tuesday's clashes between security forces and protesters in Wukan, Guangdong province, China, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
People gather at the temple after Tuesday's clashes between security forces and protesters in Wukan, Guangdong province, China, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
An injured woman and other villagers tell their experience after Tuesday's clashes between security forces and protesters in Wukan, Guangdong province, China, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
An injured woman and other villagers tell their experience after Tuesday's clashes between security forces and protesters in Wukan, Guangdong province, China, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A girl plays after Tuesday's clashes between security forces and protesters in Wukan, Guangdong province, China, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A girl plays after Tuesday's clashes between security forces and protesters in Wukan, Guangdong province, China, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A woman who said she was injured during Tuesday's clashes between security forces and protesters poses for pictures in Wukan, Guangdong province, China, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
A woman who said she was injured during Tuesday's clashes between security forces and protesters poses for pictures in Wukan, Guangdong province, China, September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Protesters demonstrate with placards which read "Support Wukan village" outside China Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China September 14, 2016.      REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Protesters demonstrate with placards which read "Support Wukan village" outside China Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
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