BEIJING - A leader of the 2011 Wukan protests in China that grabbed worldwide attention has fled to the US to seek asylum, media reports and an associate said on Wednesday.
The departure of Zhuang Liehong underscores the troubles the village 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 that 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, reports said.
"After that, I knew I had to leave the village. If I remained, the authorities would have settled scores with me," he told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
"That's why I want to stay in America or Hong Kong, where you can enjoy freedom from fear. When I was detained in jail in 2011 over the Wukan protests, I realised that the biggest fortune in life is not health but freedom."
A researcher who studied the Wukan uprising told AFP Zhuang phoned him from the US recently and said he would seek asylum.
"He told me this a few days ago," said Xiong Wei, who runs a think tank in Beijing that looks at legal and rural issues, and spent three months in Wukan during the protests.
The US embassy in Beijing declined to comment on any potential asylum case as a matter of confidentiality.
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.
Xiong said that many villagers believed the inquiries were meant to block them from standing at the polls, and that besides Yang and Hong there were few strong candidates.
"As I understand it, in the committee elections, the villagers will basically lose," he said. "No one else has influence."
Zhuang agreed, telling the Post: "The government's objective is clear. They don't want the pair to run for re-election."
Yang was accused of taking bribes in public projects, the official 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.