More than a year after a police raid ended months of daily demonstrations, the rebel Chinese village of Wukan is under a security cordon six or seven levels deep, with residents under constant surveillance from security cameras, an activist told RFA on Thursday.
The village in southern China's Guangdong province has been largely incommunicado since hundreds of armed police in full riot gear raided the village on Sept. 13, firing rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds of protesters who fought back with bricks from behind makeshift barricades.
"There are six or seven layers of security surrounding Wukan before you get to the center of the village," Chen Yongzong, a farmer-turned-rights activist from the southern region of Guangxi, told RFA on Thursday following an incognito visit to check up on the relatives of an activist in exile.
"But security cameras all have blind-spots. There were cameras all around the tombs [outside the village] but I got in via the tombs at night," Chen said.
Chen said it had been difficult to avoid appearing on security cameras once inside the main village, however.
"All I could do was not carry a big backpack, so they couldn't tell I wasn't a local resident, or where I was from," he said.
Chen, who hails from Guangxi's Liuzhou city, said the atmosphere is still "extremely tense" on the streets of Wukan.
"It is extremely tense, and there were so many security cameras when I went there," he said. "I have never seen cameras so densely packed before."
"They had them on all of the main paved roads in the village, so it is impossible to avoid appearing on them," Chen said. "The local residents there are very wary, and very few people spoke to me."
"They were really terrified, that was the impression I got," he said. "If you spoke to them, they'd just say they didn't know."
Missing activists sought
Chen said he made the trip in spite of the fear of being detained to try to find out what happened to two fellow activists from Guangxi, Yang Jishuang and Huang Huimin, who have been incommunicado since they traveled to Wukan to support the protests.
"They were detained and beaten up after they got here, and now they are incommunicado," Chen said. "I am very worried about them, so I came here to investigate."
While he was in Wukan, Chen also paid a call on the relatives of Zhuang Liehong, a former land rights activist from Wukan who fled to the U.S. in the wake of earlier protests and clashes in 2011.
"There were two or three [security cameras] installed to the left of Zhuang Liehong's family home, and one on the right," said Chen, who paid a visit to Zhuang's elderly mother.
"I bowed once I had gotten inside the door, and explained who I was, that I was sent by Zhuang Liehong to visit them," he said. "She was pretty shocked; I think she was scared. I could see it in her eyes."
He said the family had asked him to leave, apparently for fear of reprisals from the authorities.
"Zhuang Liehong's brother was there too, and he said to me, 'leave, please leave,'" Chen said. "They were terrified. I think they were afraid I might be a plainclothes cop trying to entrap them."
"They didn't believe me until I played them a recording that Zhuang Liehong had given me," he said. "Then their attitude changed completely, and they became warm and friendly, and treated me very kindly."
Zhuang, who has continued to campaign on behalf of his hometown while in the U.S., said Chen was the first person to make it past the tight security and visit his family.
"[Activists] I've been in contact with before said they were taken to the police station for questioning, and part of the inquiry was about whether or not they were in direct contact with me," Zhuang told RFA.
"I am the only person from Wukan who is able to speak out, so the authorities are extremely focused on me," he said.
Police hound family of exiled activist
He said local officials typically visit his family home to check up on them several times a day.
"They are afraid that the outside world will find out what is going on in Wukan," Zhuang said.
Authorities in Guangdong in January sent nine Wukan residents to prison to begin serving sentences ranging from two to 10 years for their involvement in resistance to the armed police raid, without giving them a chance to appeal.
The nine were sentenced by the Haifeng County People's Court on Dec. 26 for their part in resisting a raid that put an end to months of daily mass protest in Wukan following the loss of village land and the jailing of its former leader Lin Zuluan.
They were found guilty of charges that included "unlawful assembly," "disrupting public order," "disrupting traffic," "obstructing official business," and "intentionally spreading false information."
Wukan villagers have been campaigning for the return of land sold out from under them by former village chief Xue Chang, who was fired for corruption after an earlier round of protests and clashes in 2011, sparking fresh elections that saw Lin Zuluan take the helm.
But even Lin and his newly-elected village committee found it hard to secure the return of the land amid powerful vested interests, political changes higher up, and a tangle of complex legal issues.
September's raid by police on Wukan came after a court in Guangdong's Foshan city sentenced Lin to more than three years' imprisonment on "bribery" charges that local residents said were trumped up.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.