BEIJING - A leader of protests in a Chinese village that grabbed worldwide attention when it rebelled against local Communist Party authorities in 2011 has fled to the United States to seek asylum, he told AFP on Wednesday.
The departure of Zhuang Liehong underscores the troubles of Wukan, in the southern province of Guangdong, has faced since winning free elections after months of fierce demonstrations.
Wukan residents ousted their longtime leadership after discovering land sales which they called self-serving and illegal, a common source of popular anger across the country.
Zhuang was one of several organisers elected to the village committee in 2012, in what was celebrated as a rare successful popular uprising in a one-party state that quashes dissent.
But he fled China in January after another protest erupted, fearing that police would hold him responsible.
"For sure I would be locked up," he said by phone from New York, talking about what might happen if he returned. "They can use any crime to put you away, and you will have no way to fight back.
"I had no choice. I had to leave," he said, adding that he preferred to stay in China near his family and work opportunities, but was preparing to apply for asylum in the US.
In the weeks ahead of new elections scheduled for March 31, Wukan's two deputy chiefs Yang Semao and Hong Ruichao, also originally protest leaders, have come under investigation for corruption.
Many villagers believed the inquiries were meant to block them from standing at the polls, said Xiong Wei, a researcher who studied the Wukan uprising and runs a think-tank in Beijing that looks at legal and rural issues.
Besides Yang and Hong there were few strong candidates, Xiong said, adding that he has been in touch with their families as well as Zhuang.
"As I understand it, in the committee elections, the villagers will basically lose," he said. "No one else has influence."
Zhuang agreed, saying: "It's very clear that the authorities just want to control the situation in Wukan.
"The authorities very obviously want to prevent Yang and Hong from taking part in the election," he added, defending both by saying they "have not gotten one cent".
Yang was accused of taking bribes in public projects, China's state news agency Xinhua reported, while Hong was charged with bribery connected to building projects, said the official blog of Lufeng city, which administers Wukan.
Yang - who has been freed from detention to help prepare for the elections - told AFP by phone: "Objectively speaking I didn't get any benefits".
He and Hong told AFP in December that, regardless of corruption allegations, the village committee had lost popular support over its inability to reclaim land sold off by their predecessors.