Wukan's 'rebel' villagers take to streets in ongoing protest

File photo of villagers protesting in Wukan, China
Image caption Thousands of villagers have been taking to the streets of Wukan every day

This has been a place which - unlike anywhere else in China - had a genuinely elected government but many here are wondering if the so-called "Wukan experiment" is about to die.

If it does it won't be without a fight.

Thousands of villagers have been taking to the streets every day in a brazen challenge to the authorities.

At the time of writing there has not yet been an attempt to smash these demonstrations but special police are moving into the area by the busload.

The Guangdong Government has been urging us to leave.

There are really only two possibilities.

Image caption Wukan became a symbol of democracy after villagers banded together in 2011 to protest against what they said were corrupt officials selling their land to developers

One: They think that without media coverage some of the steam will come out of the protests, allowing the nearby city government to come up with some sort of negotiated settlement.

Two: With no international media to observe and record, the riot police can be sent in to bring Wukan under control the hard way.

We asked government official Chen Jiasheng, if we left, how likely it would be for this second option to occur and he told the BBC: "As head of the Guangdong provincial press office I can guarantee you that your fantasy will never happen."

Restarting a movement?

Local Communist Party Secretary Lin Zuluan is seen as a hero to the villagers. He's now in custody but people here want him released.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Liu Zuluan, one of the leaders of the 2011 rebellion, was chosen as village chief by a landslide

He was one of the leaders in the rebellion of 2011 when the former government was overthrown.

Elections were permitted as part of the deal to end the conflict nearly five years ago and he was chosen as village chief in a landslide.

But recently he had threatened to re-start the protest movement as a way of pushing yet again for these people to receive compensation for the land they say was stolen from them in the past by corrupt officials.

Yet, before he could make good with this threat, the 72 year old was taken away.

In an interview with the BBC, Shanwei City Chief Prosecutor Yuan Huaiyu said, following a tip off from "someone on the internet or maybe even a villager", Lin Zuluan was being held in custody and investigated in relation to kickbacks on several infrastructure projects including roads and a school library.

The prosecutor wouldn't say how much money was allegedly involved.

Image caption Shanwei City Chief Prosecutor Yuan Huaiyu said there was a preliminary investigation into Lin Zuluan's detention

He said they have received evidence from developers giving bribes and some documents.

Asked about the timing of Lin Zuluan's detention he said: "We've had a preliminary investigation lasting more than three months. Possibly the timing is a coincidence but this is a judicial process and we're doing our job".

Even though their former leader has been shown on television in a recorded "confession", the villagers of Wukan think these are trumped up charges to shut down an effective campaigner.

'Long live the Communist Party'

Prosecutor Yuan says the villagers don't yet understand what their leader has done but said he expects they'll change their mind once they see the evidence.

Image caption The election of Wukan's government had given people in villages around the country great hope for what might be possible under China's system

Asked by the BBC if there was any chance that Lin Zuluan could be released, Prosecutor Yuan laughed out loud and said: "We need to see how this case develops".

The election of Wukan's government had given people in villages right around the country great hope for what might be possible under the Chinese system as it stands today.

Where else could you see virtually the entire population of town or a village filling the streets in support for their Communist Party Secretary?

Even given the risks involved - in a country where you can be thrown in jail for challenging the Party - there is a remarkable unity of purpose amongst the people of Wukan, from primary school children to elderly fishermen who each day answer the call to join in the struggle.

"Free Lin Zuluan!" they chant as they march.

"Return our land!"

And, it's always followed by: "Long live the Communist Party!"

Image caption Large numbers of protesters, young and old, have joined the protests

They're hoping that more senior political figures might override the nearby city government and come to their aid.

The Wukan model

In 2011 that's exactly what happened. After expelling the officials they saw as corrupt, they barricaded the village.

The former Guangdong Party Chief Wang Yang brought an end to the standoff which had lasted months. He gave permission for a directly-elected government and said this would become known as "the Wukan model".

Wang Yang was seen as a peacemaker: a powerful party leader prepared to push for a calm and reasonable outcome as opposed to the heavy-handed tactics normally employed to crush dissent in China.

He appeared destined for promotion into the elite politburo standing committee. But he didn't get there.

Image caption The people of Wukan are used to having one of their own in charge

Now there's no Wang Yang as Guangdong party chief.

Some analysts believe that Wukan's elections could only have happened in that unique moment in history and that the window has now closed.

What's more if Lin Zuluan is prosecuted and most likely given a prison sentence it is hard to see such an open election process being allowed in order to choose his successor.

But the problem for Party elites trying to decide what to do with Wukan is that people here are now used to having one of their own in charge.

They're organised. They're committed. They're united. They know the meaning of a long political struggle. Getting them to settle for anything less than what they have now is not going to be easy.

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