By James Pomfret
WUKAN, China (Reuters) – Residents of a southern 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 fishing village in the province of Guangdong, 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 pelted police with bricks as they advanced with shields, batons and helmets, firing rubber bullets and using tear gas. Some residents suffered wounds to their legs, mobile phone footage seen by Reuters showed.
Many said the violence was worse than 2011, when the village was locked down for several months.
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.
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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 late 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 on Tuesday. Three rows of villagers could be seen in the police station, their wrists bound with white nylon zipcords.
Blue tear gas cartridges could still be seen strewn in the narrow alleyways, with black burn marks etched on to the 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.”
An earlier microblog of Lufeng county police, who oversee Wukan, stated in a post that 13 people had been arrested for organizing illegal assemblies and using threats to force villagers to join protests. It 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.
Repeated calls to the Guangdong provincial government for comment went unanswered.
(Writing by Greg Torode; Additional reporting by Hong Kong bureau and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)