Riot police have extinguished mainland China’s most famous democratic flame with rubber bullets, tear gas, and an ongoing siege.
Thousands of police stormed Wukan, a fishing village in Lufeng county, Guangdong province, China, before dawn Tuesday. During clashes with police, villagers carrying signs and national flags threw rocks and bricks. The police fired back with rubber bullets and tear gas, according to multiple media outlets.
The following is a video of Tuesday’s riots:
“It’s like a war zone here, much worse than the Japanese invasion,” one villager told the South China Morning Post (SCMP). “It was a wild crackdown. They went after everyone, chasing them up into their houses, beating people,” another villager said to Reuters after clashes with police.
Wukan is now in lockdown. Police are blocking all entry and exit points from the village, house-to-house searches are underway, and several journalists are being detained and allegedly beaten by authorities before being expelled from the village. Many villagers injured during the fighting have yet to receive proper medical treatment, and the police siege has made it difficult for some villagers to acquire food and other necessary supplies, the SCMP revealed.
This most recent altercation with police was not Wukan’s first rodeo. This village has been at odds with the government for years now.
Thousands of villagers began protesting illegal land seizures and embezzlement by local authorities Sept. 21, 2011. Violent clashes with police and protests continued to be regular occurrences in the months following. Villagers called for the return of their seized land, an end to corruption, and the replacement of village officials, explained the SCMP.
Five protest leaders were arrested Dec. 9, 2011. When one died of a suspicious heart attack, around 5,000 villagers marched out with farm tools to engage heavily-armed police. Riot police reportedly fired 50 rounds of tear gas and other ammunition into the protesters.
To quell village outrage, Wukan officials were ousted. Villagers elected a new village leader, Lin Zuluan, in March, 2012, creating a basic democratic system in Wukan. China has experimented with democratic elections in small villages, but Wukan is different because its system emerged by way of protests and violence, setting a dangerous precedent for China’s government.
Over the years, China has put pressure on Wukan’s newly elected officials, leading many of them to quit. Others have been forced out or arrested.
Wukan village leader Lin Zuluan was taken into police custody June 18 on charges of bribery and corruption. The arrest occurred after a letter he wrote surfaced online indicating an intent to reignite the fight over illegal land seizures . The 72-year-old Lin criticized the “inaction of local governments over the past five years” in the letter. Shortly after his arrest, he released a “confession video.” Over 2,000 villagers rioted in the streets on June 21.
Protests have been ongoing since June. The tipping point, however, occurred on Sept. 8, when Lin was officially convicted, inspiring villagers to ramp up their protests against the state.
Tuesday’s battle erupted as police raided the homes of Wukan villagers searching for protest leaders. The Lufeng county police reported that 13 people have been arrested for organizing an illegal protest; however, some reports claim that far more have been arrested. Chinese police initially offered RMB 100,000 ($15,000) rewards for information on five protest leaders. Chinese police have since raised the initial figure and are now offering RMB 150,000 ($22,500).
The Wukan crackdown is likely intended as a message to neighboring Hong Kong, which has been flirting with the idea of independence.
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