We left in a hurry early in the morning, clambering as quietly as we could down the roof of an abandoned house. From where we stood, Wukan looked deceptively peaceful. Lights flickered through the windows of villagers who were still awake. A dog barked. Intermittent strains of Chinese opera floated out an open front door.

For a brief moment, we were tempted to climb back up, lie down, and try to get some sleep. We’d had a long day, had just spent the better part of the night on the move – hiding at various times in an old woman’s house, behind a shed in a dark alley, inside a temple, and finally, atop an uninhabited building. Now it seemed, we had to move again.

We’d arrived barely 12 hours earlier, 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 underway, she said. There were armed police everywhere. Could we come?

Initially, we hesitated. But then we saw the videos. Shot by villagers and hastily uploaded onto Chinese social media sites, the images were shocking. Police firing rubber bullets and teargas at villagers who lobbed rocks and other objects back at them. Women begging for mercy. 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.

But authorities had blocked all major roads around Wukan. How would we get in? 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’d fled China for the United States in 2014, convinced that corrupt officials were plotting to take down leaders of the 2011 uprising.

Via a mobile phone halfway across the world, Liehong guided us on a trek through overgrown trails and abandoned backroads into his village. The first people we met seemed slightly shell shocked. They 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 ‘explosives’ thrown by the police. An old woman with swollen legs limped down an alley. She cursed the police whom she said beat her, and described how she managed to escape when they were rounding up her fellow protestors.

*

Protestors in Wukan march past hundreds of armed police

Protestors in Wukan march past hundreds of armed police

The latest round of protests – the biggest since the uprising in 2011 – began on the 19th of June 2016. Thousands of villagers cheered 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’d finally lost patience with the local government. On social media, he announced plans for a petition to demand that Wukan’s longstanding land issues be resolved. Authorities responded instead by raiding his house in the middle of the night and taking him away.

Despite, or maybe because of the setback, villagers vowed to keep up the pressure. We followed as they marched that afternoon. Volunteers on loudhailers urged the crowd to walk in an orderly manner and to remain peaceful. As the procession headed towards the edge of the village, we saw hundreds of police, some of them in full riot gear, lining both sides of the road. The protestors kept going, kept chanting, “Return our land! Return our Chief!”

*

When we left in June, the villagers seemed resolute – uncowed by a growing police presence and talk of a crackdown. They promised to march every day until Lin was released. He was instead sentenced on September 8, to 37 months in prison for corruption. Days later, the government moved against the protestors

Villagers said the raid was like nothing they’d ever witnessed. Police were more brutal than even during the uprising in 2011. And it was clear they 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 harbouring journalists risked being arrested; anyone who turned one in, would receive a reward of 200,000 yuan.

We spent the evening moving from one place to another, paranoid 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. There were still people we wanted to see, so we accepted her offer, hoping to sneak out and find them later in the night.

But then, came news that dozens of police had stormed another house, roughed up three reporters from Hong Kong who were staying there, and taken them away. The old woman’s frantic relatives told us we had to go. Like the family before, they apologised over and over again.

In the end, we thought it best not to seek shelter with any villager. The abandoned house seemed like a perfect place to spend the night. But just as we were nodding off, we heard footsteps. And then, a whisper, “You can’t stay here. Time to run.”

We’d never met the villager before, didn’t even know his name. But he’d come to warn us that 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 on, congratulating ourselves as we sped away, for successfully making it out of Wukan.

We should have waited. Ten kilometres on, in a town called Nantang, we were stopped at a roadblock.

*

We never thought, when we first started filming in Wukan five years ago, that this was how things would end – with a dressing down in a police station well away from the village. We recognised one of the officials. He’d 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’d 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 Station and filmed as we boarded a train bound for Hong Kong.

It’s unlikely we’ll be back anytime soon, unlikely that we’ll ever get to thank the villager who risked his own safety to warn us that we were in danger. He’ll probably never know that police did get to us in the end, or that because of him, we’d taken precautions and managed to leave with all our material, intact.

 

Our series, ‘Wukan: China’s Democracy Experiment’ was commissioned by Al Jazeera English. Watch it here.

‘Wukan’, our feature documentary premiered at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. It won Best Documentary at the Freedom Film Festival, Best International Documentary at the Chopshots Documentary Film Festival, Best International Documentary at the Chinese Documentary Festival, First Prize at the Human Rights Press Awards, and a Special Mention at the Dubai International Film Festival.