WUKAN, China (Reuters) - Hopes for democracy in the Chinese village of Wukan, where an uprising against corruption five years ago gained global notice and led to direct village-wide elections, have all but evaporated, with protest leaders either in detention, in exile, facing arrest or quitting their posts.
Villagers have been marching in protest every day since the middle of June in a fresh flare-up of unrest, but the so-called "Wukan model", with authorities seemingly taking a more tolerant approach towards unrest by kicking out corrupt officials and allowing a free vote, appears to have been a one-off.
Wukan is about a four-hour drive northeast of Hong Kong, where a 79-day "umbrella revolution" in late 2014 demanding Beijing allow full democracy, brought chaos to the streets.
This time the turmoil in Wukan focused on the arrest by local authorities of elected leader Lin Zuluan, one of the last of the 2011 protest leaders to remain in office, for bribery after he urged demonstrations against new land grabs and graft.
"The corrupt are very proficient in deceiving the people," the 72-year-old Lin wrote in a signed letter to the village dated March 2, adding that the seized land had been "raped by power, money and gangsters".
In 2011, rampaging villagers ransacked the Wukan police station and government offices before barricading themselves against riot police for months. This time, the villagers have held thousand-strong protests for 12 straight days in sweltering summer heat watched by riot police, with no sign of stopping.
Lin had become increasingly dismayed with authorities stonewalling attempts to reclaim plots of land knotted up in dodgy deals and for brokering fresh deals behind his back, relatives said.
Lin "couldn't bear it anymore," said one of his relatives who declined to be identified. "The Lufeng (city) government sold this land, a new piece of land, without telling anyone."
Officially stamped documents provided by people close to Lin and reviewed by Reuters give substance to his increasing frustrations.
In December, Lin wrote several letters to a developer, Hua Hui Real Estate, that he said had acquired a 110,000-sq-metre plot in Wukan without Lin's knowledge or the approval of the Wukan village committee that oversees land use and is the main administrator of the village. Lin is the committee head.
The committee had demanded the company give evidence of the land deal and provide a detailed survey map of the "Long Hu Bay" area it planned to develop, according to a letter dated Dec. 28.
The company replied to the committee three days later that it had acted "in accordance with law and procedures", but declined to provide any documents, directing further inquiries to the "relevant government departments".
After repeated correspondence over several months, there was still no clarification. The company also declined to clarify details of the land deal to Reuters.
The Lufeng government that oversees Wukan said in a written reply to Reuters that Long Hu Bay was "state-owned land which does not belong to the villagers" and that Hua Hui had now halted construction given Wukan's objections. It added that it had been actively helping resolve Wukan's land issues with 646 acres of land having been handed back since 2011, but 1,221 acres are still being contested between Wukan and 7 nearby villages.
A few days after his call for new protests, on June 18, Lin was arrested by SWAT officers who stormed his walled compound after midnight and bundled him away, pushing his elderly wife, Yang Zhen, to the ground as she tried to intervene, she told Reuters.
Lin's 22-year-old grandson was detained less than 48 hours later in another late night raid and interrogated for 12 hours straight. A confession by Lin admitting taking large bribes was aired on state television on the morning of June 21, and the grandson was released hours later.
"When they captured me, they were very excited," said the grandson, Lin Liyi. "I think they used me to pressure my grandfather" to make a confession.
Reuters was unable to contact Lin, and it wasn't clear whether Lin has legal representation after two lawyers who were hired by his family were blocked by authorities from taking on his case.
"The intervention violates the rule of law," one of the lawyers, Ge Yongxi, told Reuters by phone. "They obstructed a lawyer's daily business and abused Lin's human rights."
Lin's arrest was the latest move on the core group of Wukan protest leaders from 2011. Lin remains in police custody and investigations continue into allegations he took bribes of up to 600,000 yuan ($90,200) for land deals and public works projects, according to the official China Daily newspaper.
In 2014, two former deputy village chiefs, Yang Semao and Hong Ruichao, were jailed for two and four years respectively for bribery, around the time of another village election. Those who knew the men, including Hong's father, Hong Tianbin, said they were framed. Chinese authorities say they took bribes linked to public work projects.
Another leader, Zhuang Liehong, fled China and sought asylum in the United States, fearing for his safety amid what he told Reuters was "political persecution". Two others quit, while Sun Wenliang, a former accountant, has an arrest warrant on his
head, village sources said.
The Lufeng government said in its statement to Reuters that it "has not discovered any situation of unfair suppression or punishment" of Wukan's protest leaders, or of undermining village rights and interests.
Hundreds of riot police were sent to the village when the protests started but there has been no crackdown. There are, however, signs of authorities tightening their grip.
Some reporters in Wukan said they were accused of inciting unrest and told to leave, which they did, while three other sources said authorities had been aggressively going after potential ringleaders to quash any escalation.
Few have dared lead from the front this time round.
"Everyone can see the old leaders were all caught and are afraid," Lin's grandson told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Lindsy Long and Tris Pan in Hong Kong; Editing by Nick Macfie