WUKAN (China) • When the first wave of riot police swept into the southern Chinese "democracy village" of Wukan shortly after 3am on 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 protests as anti-riot squads seal the area and sever communications. With dozens of villagers detained and arrested after skirmishes with police, the 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.
'WE'VE DONE NOTHING WRONG'
The whole village hasn't done anything illegal; we just want old Lin to come out and to get our land back. But they don't care if we're guilty or not. They just beat us.
A WUKAN VILLAGER, on the crackdown.
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."
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 and green khaki fatigues, and armed with full-body shields. Firing tear gas and rubber bullets, the police blocked streets and prevented any advance by villagers. By Tuesday night, the place was quiet, if tense.
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."