By James Pomfret
WUKAN, China (Reuters) – More than 1,000 residents of a southern Chinese village that was once hailed as a beacon of democracy in the Communist-ruled country marched in protest on Monday, demanding the release of the village chief who was detained in a weekend raid.
The fishing village of Wukan made international headlines in 2011 when it launched an uprising against corrupt former village leaders and land grabs that resulted in provincial authorities sacking the former village chief and allowing fresh elections that saw many protest leaders elected on a landslide.
Villagers gathered near dusk after listening to a speech from a public stage, waving red China flags and calling for the return of seized land and the release of Lin Zuluan, a former protest leader who was directly elected village chief in 2012 and who has since been accused of abuse of power and accepting bribes.
More than 100 riot and paramilitary police in helmets and shields watched as the villagers, young and old, streamed around the village perimeter in a long procession, some jeering at the officers as they went and pumping their fists in the air.
“Do not assemble and protest again,” notices posted by the regional government in the village read.
“Do that at your own risk.”
The protesters dispersed later in the evening, with another demonstration planned for Tuesday.
Lin’s wife told reporters that she’s spoken to her husband by telephone since his arrest and that he had urged the villagers to keep fighting for the seized land and justice.
“It may be even bigger than before if things aren’t resolved,” said 50-year-old Xie Songbo, referring to the events of 2011 when Wukan barricaded itself for months and ransacked the local police and Communist Party headquarters.
“WE MUST FREE OLD LIN”
Groups of young men on mopeds and motor-bikes were tasked with guarding the perimeter of the village and ensuring a group of several dozen journalists holed up in the village chief’s three-storey family home wouldn’t be taken away by authorities.
Earlier, a deputy Communist party leader of nearby Donghai Town, Qian Hanpei, lashed out at several reporters with an umbrella as they questioned him on the standoff.
Several other villagers have been taken into police custody, including a relative of Lin’s, villagers said.
The fresh unrest is rooted in continued frustration with the lack of progress on the illegal land seizures over the past five years and the failure to revive the local economy through agriculture and tourism projects. Many blame higher township and regional authorities for obstructing Lin and his team out of retribution for the 2011 uprising.
“We don’t trust the government,” said Zhen Zaolin, a stocky villager with a jade necklace who’d gathered with a group of angry men under a leafy tree to escape the sweltering heat.
“We must fight for Wukan’s rights and free old Lin.”
Half the stalls in the wet market were abandoned and crumbling, while swathes of surrounding fields remained fenced up and undeveloped, still knotted in land usage and ownership rows.
“Lin is just one person,” said a middle aged woman surnamed Liu in a mahjong parlour with her friends. “He can’t fight the entire government. They have just crushed him.”
There were notices posted up in the village saying that another village leader, Zhang Shuijin, would take over after Lin’s arrest.
(Additional reporting by Venus Wu in Hong Kong; Editing by Nick Macfie)