Thousands of people in Wukan in southern Guangdong province defied a police warning and staged a protest march yesterday, demanding that authorities release their village chief and return occupied land. Under a scorching sun, more than 2,000 residents from children to the elderly gathered at about 2pm amid a heavy presence of riot police, waving national flags and giant white banners declaring their grievances. “Release our party secretary, return our land,” they chanted in the village’s central plaza. Authorities had attempted to halt the assembly by detaining Wukan’s party secretary, Lin Zuluan, at midnight on Saturday. All shops and restaurants were closed as the villagers gathered for the first time in nearly five years. The fishing village 120km east of Hong Kong made international headlines in September 2011 when residents staged a series of protests over land seizures. The Guangdong provincial government eventually relented and, in an attempt to end the protests over their land, granted the villagers a grass-roots election to select their own leaders. But almost five years later, villagers complain that the land disputes have not been resolved and, if anything, are worse. Lin, 70, was snatched from his home on Saturday by about 10 police officers, after he called on villagers to join a march planned for tomorrow over the alleged continued abuses. Authorities in nearby Lufeng had warned that villagers who took action would be “severely dealt with by iron fists”. Chinese villagers fighting against land grabs slam police detention of inspirational chief ‘an act of thuggery’ But villagers remained defiant yesterday, vowing to go ahead with tomorrow’s protest, then proceeded to march around the village under the eyes of riot police, who feared a repeat of what happened five years ago, when protesters vandalised police vehicles. “No one organised this assembly, everyone came on their own. It’s no fun to stand in the sun like this if not for supporting Lin,” a 25-year-old villager who refused to be named said. “We want to show the world what is happening in Wukan. How on earth is it possible for them to arrest Lin in the middle of the night? We must seek justice for him.” Lin’s wife, 68-year-old Yang Zhen, said the villagers would gather signatures today and proceed with tomorrow’s petition, demanding that authorities release her husband. “I’m very happy to see such a large turnout today. We must remain united to get our land back,”she said. “I am not afraid of being arrested. The people here are covering my back.” Officials attempted to dissuade villagers from marching earlier yesterday. Zhang Shuijin, a Wukan village deputy secretary, told reporters that the Lufeng city government had recently set up a working group of about a dozen members to study Wukan’s land disputes. “There is no need for a general assembly. We must rely on the city government to solve the issue for us,” Zhang said. Despite their defiance, the villagers remained fearful of a police crackdown. As night fell, they prepared diesel generators as rumours spread that the village’s power supply would be cut. Five years since landmark protests, Chinese village stirs again Other villagers organised shifts to guard the lanes overnight where journalists were staying, fearing a midnight raid. They also expressed fears over Lin’s safety in police custody, and remembered how their protest leader Xue Jinbo died mysteriously after being detained in 2011.