Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have detained a second local leader in the rebel village of Wukan, as residents and officials hit out at forthcoming elections to the village committee as "a travesty" amid an ongoing land dispute
Hong Ruichao is the second deputy chairman of the village committee to be detained in a week, and is currently in criminal custody on suspicion of "taking bribes for public projects" in the village, the nearby Lufeng city government, which administers Wukan, said on its official Twitter-like account.
Hong's wife, Zheng Aiping, told RFA's Mandarin Service on Thursday that her husband was taken away by prosecutors from Lufeng on Tuesday morning for questioning on suspicion of accepting bribes.
An undated photo of Hong Ruichao. Photo courtesy of a relative.
"This is a trumped-up charge, which is a bit out of the blue," Zheng said, adding that Hong had received "visits" before his detention.
"Some people went to our house to speak to Ruichao and to warn him not to take part in the elections," she said. "Now they have him under detention, they said in the detention center."
"The officials are pretty corrupt around here," she said. "I don't even know if they're beating him up in there."
Zheng said she supports her husband's political activities, however.
"He joined the village committee to help Wukan, not to serve his own interests," she said.Money was returned
Official media reports said that Hong had taken the alleged bribe in 2012, when contractors laying water pipes in the village offered him 30,000 yuan (U.S.$4,839.80), but that all of it had been returned after a few days.
Last week, authorities briefly detained Hong's co-deputy chairman Yang Semao on similar charges, although Yang has since been released on bail and is busy organizing elections to the village committee scheduled for the end of March.
Hong's cousin hit out at the authorities for choosing to wait until just before an election to detain him over something that happened in 2012.
"I asked them about this money at the time, and they told me it was funds for a public project, and that it had already been returned where it came from," he said.
Yang told RFA's Cantonese Service on Thursday that Hong's absence would be a sore blow to the electoral process in Wukan.
"There is very little time left, and I have to find another person to help me run the election," he said.
The first thing we have to do is work for his release," Yang said, adding that Hong had planned to contest the forthcoming poll alongside him.
"Maybe they want to send a message that Yang Semao's running mate got detained, so now maybe everyone will be scared to partner with him."Party 'campaign' feared
Both Yang and Hong's detentions have fueled villagers' fears that the authorities are waging a campaign to bring back candidates favored by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Lufeng, after leaders of the violent 2011 land protest were elected to the committee two years ago.
Yang said the committee in charge of the elections has yet to issue notices calling for public nominations for the elections.
"I told them they should call for nominations and publish a full list of candidates 10 days ahead of the elections ... and have a public debate," he said.
"But the preparatory committee is being manipulated, and they don't plan to call for nominations at all, or to publish a list of candidates," Yang added.
"This election has turned into a travesty," he said.Villagers push back
Hundreds of villagers defended their village against armed police in a standoff with security forces in December 2011, following weeks of peaceful protest at decades of unauthorized land sell-offs by former party secretary Xue Chang, who has since been disciplined for corruption.
Six protest leaders were later elected to the village committee on March 3, 2012 after provincial leaders intervened on villagers' behalf, while Lin Zuluan was appointed party secretary by authorities in Donghai township, which administers Wukan.
Earlier this month, around 78 percent of eligible voters in the 20,000-strong village turned out to vote in a poll to choose the committee that will implement the elections.
Yang said at the time that the turnout was slightly better than predicted, although some older party officials had made a comeback on the list of 43 candidates contesting 11 places on the committee.
The requisitioning of rural land for lucrative property deals by cash-hungry local governments triggers thousands of "mass incidents" across China every year, but many result in violent suppression, the detention of the main organizers, and intense pressure on the local population to comply with the government's wishes.
In the case of Wukan, however, the standoff with armed police who encircled the village sparked rare concessions following an investigation by the provincial government of Guangdong, which concluded that most of the villagers' demands and complaints were justified.Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.