We left in a hurry early in the morning, clambering down the roof of an abandoned house as quietly as we could.
From where we stood, Wukan – a fishing village in China’s southern Guangdong province – looked deceptively peaceful. Lights flickered through the windows of villagers who were awake. A dog barked. Intermittent strains of Chinese opera floated from a radio through an open front door.
For a brief moment, we were tempted to climb back up, lie down, and try to get some sleep. After a long day, we had just spent the better part of the night on the move. We had hidden in an old woman’s house, behind a shed in a dark alley, and finally on top of the uninhabited building where we had just been roused from our sleep.
Now it seemed we had to move again.
Fellow filmmaker James Leong and I had arrived barely 12 hours earlier on September 14, 2016, taking a circuitous route that ended in a trek through gravesites and waterlogged fields.
A villager had sent us a message the previous morning. A crackdown was under way, she had said. There were armed police everywhere. Could we come?
Initially we hesitated. We were finishing another documentary and had a deadline to meet. But then we saw the videos. Shot by villagers and hastily uploaded on to WeChat, a Chinese social media app, the images were shocking.
The footage depicted police firing rubber bullets and tear gas at villagers who lobbed rocks and other objects back at them. In some of the videos, women were begging for mercy. Others showed bound villagers – some of them children – sitting on the floor of what looked like the police station.
We had to find out what was going on.
Wukan’s historic vote
Wukan first came to our attention in late 2011, when villagers rose up to demand the return of communal land that had been secretly sold by members of its village committee. Tens of thousands of similar demonstrations erupt across China each year, but Wukan made global headlines for two reasons. First, leaders of the uprising took pains to contact journalists. Second, and more importantly, the demonstrators succeeded in ousting the village committee. The provincial government agreed to let Wukan hold democratic elections.
We first arrived in the village in February 2012 as preparations for the vote got under way. Everyone we interviewed believed it was the start of a new era for Wukan, a chance for the village’s 13,000 people to define their own future.
The optimism back then was infectious. But we have since seen euphoria turn to disillusionment, and idealism to resignation. Wukan might have held democratic elections, but China remains a largely undemocratic country. The new village committee had to take orders from officials from local and provincial governments, who had no interest in rocking the boat. Contentious land issues – the very reason why Wukan rose up in 2011 – remained unresolved.
By June 2016, village chief Lin Zuluan had had enough. He announced plans for a petition and new protests. But by September it was all over. A massive crackdown was under way – and we had to somehow get back into the village.
An activist in exile
Authorities had blocked all major roads around Wukan. We didn’t want to risk calling any of the villagers we knew in case their phones were bugged, so we turned to the only Wukan activist who was still able to speak freely – Zhuang Liehong. He had fled China for the United States in early 2014, convinced that corrupt officials were plotting to take down leaders of the 2011 uprising.
One and a half months after Zhuang’s departure, police arrested Wukan’s two deputy village chiefs. County authorities accused Yang Semao and Hong Ruichao – both prominent leaders of the 2011 uprising – of accepting bribes. But the men’s families said they were being punished for calling a village meeting to discuss land issues.
Via a mobile phone halfway across the world, Zhuang guided us on a trek through overgrown trails and abandoned backroads into his village. The first people we met told us not to film their faces in case they got in trouble with the government.
A young woman pointed to a gaping wound on her forehead – inflicted, she said, by the police that morning. Other villagers showed us sores on their arms and legs, caused apparently by what they referred to as “explosives” thrown by the police. An old woman with swollen legs limped down an alley. She cursed the police, who she said had beaten her.
The latest round of protests – the biggest since the uprising in 2011 – began on June 19, 2016. That afternoon, thousands of villagers cheered under a scorching sun as Yang Zhen, the village chief’s wife, got on stage. Her husband, Lin Zuluan, had recently been arrested and could not be there himself. But Yang urged the crowd to unite, to call for his release, and to demand the return of their stolen farmland.
Lin himself had reached out to the media days earlier. After five years of waiting, he had finally lost patience with the local government. On the microblogging site Weibo he revealed that construction for a new industrial project was about to start on a piece of land in Wukan, despite objections from villagers.
He posted documents to show that his attempts to speak with the local government went nowhere, and promised to launch a petition to demand that Wukan’s long-standing land issues be resolved. Authorities responded instead by raiding his house in the middle of the night and taking him away.
Lin appeared on state television a few days later, to “confess” to taking kickbacks linked to village infrastructure projects. As his stunned supporters watched the broadcast, they insisted to us that Lin was never corrupt. Instead, they said, he was arrested simply because he was planning new protests.
Despite, or maybe because of the setback, thousands of villagers vowed to keep up the pressure on the local government. We followed them on several marches in June. They were long and exhausting. The weather was unbearably hot, but thousands of people showed up.
Volunteers on megaphones urged the crowd to walk in an orderly manner and to remain peaceful. During the first few days, hundreds of police, some of them in full riot gear, lined both sides of the road.
Undeterred by the display of power, the protesters kept marching as they chanted: “Return our land! Return our Chief!”
When we left in June, the villagers seemed resolute. Unintimidated by a growing police presence and talk of a crackdown, they promised to march every day until Lin was released. But on September 8, he was sentenced to 37 months in prison for corruption. Days later, the government moved against the protesters.
Villagers said the raid was like nothing they had ever witnessed. Police were more brutal than even during the uprising in 2011: they arrested more than 100 people within a few short hours and beat even old women and children.
It was clear that the authorities were not merely interested in putting an end to the daily marches. The afternoon we arrived, a government van weaved through the village, broadcasting the names of those who had allegedly instigated the “unrest”. They were told to turn themselves in or face severe consequences.
Shortly after that, the family hosting us told us we could no longer remain in their house. They apologised profusely, but said they’d just heard another announcement: villagers found sheltering journalists risked being arrested themselves; anyone who turned one in would receive a reward of 20,000 yuan (about $3,000).
We spent the evening moving from one place to another, constantly afraid that we would run into police. For a blissful two hours, an elderly villager took us in, fed us tea and mooncakes, and said we could hide in her attic. But then came news from some neighbours that dozens of police had stormed another house, roughed up three reporters from Hong Kong who were staying there, and taken them and their hosts away.
The old woman’s frantic relatives told us we had to move on once again. Like the family before, they apologised over and over again – sending us away was not a decision they had taken lightly.
In the end, we thought it best not to seek shelter with any villager. An abandoned house seemed like a perfect place to spend the night. But just as we were nodding off, we heard footsteps followed by a whisper: “You can’t stay here. Time to run.” We had never met the villager before, but he’d come to warn us: someone had reported our whereabouts to the police.
The trek out of Wukan took twice as long as the one in. It was difficult to see where we were going in the dark, but we didn’t dare turn on our torches. For hours, we stumbled through knee-high grass and soggy, mosquito-infested fields. The one time we decided to use the main road, we saw a police car and had to quickly duck back into the fields. In the silence, our breathing seemed unusually loud.
Six hours later, we found ourselves in a different village. No one seemed to want to talk to us, but a taxi stopped when we hailed it. We got in, congratulating ourselves as we sped away for successfully making it out of Wukan.
We should have waited. Ten kilometres into our journey, in a town called Nantang, police stopped us at a roadblock.
When we first started filming in Wukan five years ago, we never thought that our journey would end with a dressing down in a police station well away from the village. We recognised one of the officials. Huang Xianjia wasn’t normally based there but had been called in the moment our identities were confirmed. He had introduced himself in 2012, and had even insisted on joining us once for dinner.
Over the years, as the Chinese Communist Party hardened its stance towards activism, dissent and the media, we had witnessed a change in his attitude. Still, our exchanges had always been polite.
Even now, he was all smiles and apologies as his colleague ordered us to delete our footage, confiscated all our memory cards, and told us never to return to Wukan again without their permission.
They let us go six hours later. Two policemen escorted us to the Lufeng train station and filmed us as we boarded a train bound for Hong Kong.
The ‘prison’ village
Since then, we have not been back to Wukan. We met Zhuang Liehong in New York in January and he told us the village had become a “prison”, patrolled regularly by armed police and under constant surveillance.
Zhuang’s own father Zhuang Songkun was arrested on September 13, 2016, and was given a three-year sentence for “disrupting traffic”. Eight more villagers were found guilty and received prison terms of up to ten years. More trials are expected soon.
Visitors to Wukan continue to be closely monitored. When two activists from neighbouring Guangxi province tried to visit Zhuang’s mother in January, they were arrested within five minutes of entering her house. They have not been heard of since.
It’s unlikely we will be able to return to Wukan in the near future, and unlikely that we will ever get to thank the villager who risked his own safety to warn us that we were in danger.
He will probably never know that police did get to us in the end, and that because of him we had erased all our memory cards before leaving the village, and made alternative arrangements to get all of our footage out of the country, intact.