WUKAN, China (Reuters) - Surveillance cameras peer at residents from every major street corner. Informants are everywhere, villagers say. And more than a dozen villagers are languishing in prison or detention.
The southern Chinese village of Wukan was once a symbol of grassroots democracy in China. Now, a year after the authorities quelled protests over land grabs and the jailing of a local leader, Wukan is locked in a stifling security squeeze.
A rare visit to Wukan by a Reuters team and interviews with half a dozen villagers and sources familiar with the situation revealed that the village and surrounding area remain tightly policed as the government tries to maintain security at all costs.
Villagers in Wukan once warmly welcomed the media, but many are now afraid of speaking for fear of reprisals.
“There’s nothing left here,” said one young man in Wukan who was edgy and wouldn’t talk for long. “You know what happened,” he added before moving quickly away.
The sources said that a provincial-level “Wukan Mass Working Group” had been set up with about 100 full-time personnel and charged with ensuring “stability” by marshalling a network of informers, security patrols, surveillance systems and floodlights in the village.
In the 1980s, the Chinese government began allowing elections in villages nationwide, although democracy activists say the votes for village committees were rarely free from official influence.
But after a series of protests against local officials in Wukan in 2011, when government offices were ransacked, authorities eventually backed down, allowing the village to hold open elections that became a beacon for democratic hope in China.
But now, Wukan, once famous in China as the “democracy village”, has succumbed to China’s tightening grip over civil society and individual rights, said Zhuang Liehong, a former Wukan protest leader who helped lead an uprising against local authorities in 2011.
“What is happening in Wukan is what is happening in China,” said Zhuang. “It’s a dark reflection of China, with no freedom of expression. No individual rights.”
There was no immediate response from the Guangdong provincial government to faxed questions from Reuters seeking comment.
Under President Xi Jinping, the government has intensified efforts to deepen the reach of the Communist Party into all aspects of life in China. Critics say it brooks no dissent, and has been cracking down on civil society, which it sees as a challenge to central authority.
“When Xi took the reins in 2013, repressing boundary-pushers in civil society was a cornerstone of his political campaign to consolidate power,” Diana Fu of the University of Toronto and Greg Distelhorst of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote in an academic paper on “Grassroots Participation and Repression in Contemporary China”.
With China’s recent leadership transition further consolidating Xi’s power, the next five years will likely see a continuation of tough social stability policies that will have an impact on places like Wukan, some analysts say.
“The party has decided to double down on authoritarianism after the problems they’ve faced,” said Nicolas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s director for East Asia.
During the 2011 protests, Zhuang helped barricade the coastal hamlet of 15,000 people against battalions of riot police. He spoke by telephone with Reuters from New York, where he is now in exile after leaving Wukan in 2014.
Wukan sits in a picturesque region flanked by hills and a deep water harbour, with lush farmland, ponds teeming with fish and shrimp, and the occasional flash of kingfishers.
Its troubles began in the 1990s when swathes of farmland began being sold off to property developers by the village leadership in a series of opaque deals.
In 2011, these problems came to a head, when many villagers began demanding that the land be returned.
A months-long insurrection against local authorities and riot police put a global media spotlight on Wukan, leading to a rare populist victory in Communist China when the provincial authorities eventually backed down.
The village committee at the centre of the land deals was removed and a free election was allowed that saw all seven of the protest leaders voted into public office.
This village committee soon came under pressure from allies of the old leadership seeking retribution, they said. Over the course of the next few years most of the protest organisers left public office, including their leader, Lin Zuluan, who was jailed for corruption last summer.
The protests last year erupted after villagers demanded Lin’s release. Many villagers say the charges were concocted and that a confession by Lin on state television was forced.
The protests ran for several months and were quelled by hundreds of riot police firing rubber bullets, hurling tear gas and beating up villagers with batons, victims and witnesses told Reuters at the time.
Last December, the People’s Court of nearby Haifeng town, which oversees Wukan, sentenced nine villagers to jail terms ranging from two to nine years for a number of charges including illegal assembly, disrupting traffic and spreading false information, according to a notice on its website.
There was no immediate response to a Reuters request for comment from the Lufeng government, which has jurisdiction over Haifeng and Wukan.
One villager, Zhang Bingchai, was jailed for two years for allegedly spreading false information, the court said. Two acquaintances who knew him said he had spoken about the situation in Wukan, to outsiders on his mobile phone and had posted some images of the crackdown.
Zhuang said his 67-year-old father, Zhuang Songkun, was jailed for three years on a charge of gathering a crowd to block traffic during the protests.
The hard line against the protests reflects the government’s desire to ensure stability, said Xiong Wei, the founder of New Enlightenment, a village advocacy organization in Beijing who has visited Wukan on numerous occasions.
“And they’ve been very successful,” said Xiong. “No one dares raise their head. But the problems haven’t been resolved,” he added, referring to the land seizures.
Beyond a checkpoint manned by paramilitary police with guns, the main road into Wukan is now lined with giant billboards and colourful flags projecting a new narrative of stability and peace. Propaganda billboards and posters were also displayed around town.
“Advance solidly to execute the strategy of loving the people,” read one, illustrated with a flock of doves flying over uniformed officers clutching rifles as they look across towards a portrait of Mao in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
“Police and the people build a harmonious and civilised Wukan together,” it read. Another sign urged a “New Ethos”.
Beneath the surface, however, resentment lingers amongst those who spoke to Reuters.
“Wukan has reached a dead end now,” said one villager. “People won’t do anything.”
Back in New York, Zhuang, the exiled former Wukan protest leader, said he’ll keep speaking out.
He said his mother has been harassed and his house surveilled with cameras. Visitors to his house have been questioned and several detained, he said. His assertions could not be independently confirmed.
All of the other former Wukan protest leaders have since quit their posts, been jailed, or harassed, he said.
“Besides me, there are no voices left. It is silent now.”
Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Philip McClellan