Sept. 15 is the International Day of Democracy. On Wednesday, one Chinese villager spent the eve of the U.N.-designated day tending to her swollen foot, which had been injured by a rubber bullet fired by riot police. The day before, SWAT teams had invaded her hometown of Wukan, firing tear gas and rubber bullets as they broke down doors to conduct house-to-house searches and arrest some of those who dared to protest.
It was a shocking display in a police state where authorities rarely resort to such brute methods of crowd control. But Wukan has long been special. The fishing village, just a few hours from Hong Kong, has been at the center of dissent — and inevitable crackdowns — for years, ever since locals looted government offices in 2011 to protest what they said were land grabs by corrupt officials. “We Wukan people are so miserable,” said the villager whose foot was injured in Tuesday’s violent raid. “We didn’t do anything illegal. We just need our land.”
Residents say hundreds of security forces descended on the village, catalyzing even elderly grannies to fight back with bricks and stones. “It was chaos,” recalls another villager. At least a dozen Wukan residents have been detained, among them primary-school students, according to locals. Video secretly disseminated by locals shows villagers cowering in a Lufeng county government building as police yell at them. One bloodied individual lies on a stretcher, while a farmer in a straw hat squats on the floor. Police have warned residents who have dared to be in contact with foreign or Hong Kong journalists to keep quiet. “We were told, ‘If you talk to foreign media again, we will arrest you,’” says a villager who, like all who speak to TIME, has requested anonymity.
Tuesday’s crackdown showed how thoroughly hope can be squelched, even in a village that had been lauded by state media as a laboratory for “grassroots democracy.” After their initial 2011 civil uprising, villagers were allowed to directly elect their leaders. Yet despite vows to give land back or at least compensate villagers, authorities have done little to fix Wukan. In June, Lin Zuluan (who also uses the given name Zulian), Wukan’s elected village chief, was arrested on corruption charges after he began yet another effort to push higher-level officials to address Wukan’s woes. (Land grabs are endemic across China, as local governments search for easy ways to fill their coffers.)
Many locals contend the charges against Lin were trumped up as a way to sideline him, like other protest leaders have been silenced over the years. On Sept. 8, the 70-year-old Lin was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, catalyzing waves of protest in Wukan. Censors have scrubbed news about the latest Wukan episode from Chinese social media. The village is now in lockdown. Villagers say no one, not even fish or vegetable sellers, are allowed into the hamlet without showing a local ID card.
Despite its association with democratic reform, most Wukan residents have never called for a wholesale shift in political system. Lin, the now jailed village chief, was a member of the Chinese Communist Party, as were some other protest figures. To fight off the police, villagers have used bamboo sticks that had once served as flagpoles for patriotic displays of the Chinese flag. Allergy to the word democracy is understandable. In China, it is a tainted term. People have been taught that democracy is too messy and unpredictable a form of governance to work in the world’s most populous nation. Instead, Wukan people say they want justice.
Yet what Wukan residents have campaigned for — fair courts, accountable leaders, land rights — feels a lot like the trappings of democracy. Just south of Wukan, in the territory of Hong Kong, which is governed somewhat apart from the rest of China, thousands of protesters have rallied for similar rights. Earlier this month, they even elected local legislators who have called for democratic rule and independence from Beijing. Unlike Chinese state media, Hong Kong press can cover the events in Wukan, and they have been the major conduit for news out of the fishing village. “I heard Hong Kong media told the truth to outsiders and Hong Kong people went on the street to protest for us,” says the villager whose foot was shot by riot police on Tuesday. “I thank them so much. Without their support, Wukan wouldn’t exist in the world.”
— With reporting by Yang Siqi / Beijing