One of the leaders of a 2011 protest in the rebel village of Wukan in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong has said he has fled to the United States and is seeking political asylum, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party continues to detain former protest leaders.
Zhuang Liehong, who arrived with his wife in New York in early February, said he wanted to remain in the United States after two other popularly elected village leaders were detained on "bribery" charges.
Zhuang was elected to the Wukan village committee in March 2012 popular elections after the village grabbed world headlines with its December 2011 fight at the barricades amid a long-running land dispute.
"There were many signs that I would be the target of political persecution if I didn't leave," Zhuang told RFA's Mandarin Service on Monday.
"The government didn't take any action against us [in 2011], because if they had, that would have affected their attempts to restore social stability," he said.
He said he had left China with a tour group on Jan. 27, arriving in New York on Feb. 4, but had not gone back with them and wanted to stay in the U.S. long-term if possible.
He said the arrests of deputy village committee chairmen Yang Semao and Hong Ruichao on bribery charges in recent weeks had made him fear he would be next.
Last week, Hong became the second deputy chairman of the village committee to be detained in the space of a week, and is currently in criminal custody on suspicion of "taking bribes for public projects" in the village, the nearby Lufeng city government, which administers Wukan, said on its official Twitter-like account last Thursday.
Yang Semao was released on bail a day after his earlier detention, but Hong Ruichao remains in a detention center, villagers said.
Zhuang added: "All the signs are that the authorities will start taking retaliatory action after [coming] elections in [March] 2014 against those who fought for their rights."
"That's why I thought of running away to the United States," he said.
Villagers push back
Hundreds of Wukan villagers defended their village against armed police in a standoff with security forces in December 2011, following weeks of peaceful protest at decades of unauthorized land sell-offs by former party secretary Xue Chang, who has since been disciplined for corruption.
Xue Chang was ousted after four decades in charge of Wukan following a protracted campaign of peaceful protest and a face-off over roadblocks and barricades with armed police in December 2011.
Six protest leaders were later elected to the village committee on March 3, 2012 after provincial leaders intervened on villagers' behalf, while Lin Zuluan was appointed party secretary by authorities in Donghai township, which administers Wukan.
Earlier this month, around 78 percent of eligible voters in the 20,000-strong village turned out to vote in a poll to choose the committee that will implement elections at the end of March 2014.
Zhuang said protest leader Lin Zuluan, a veteran party member who spoke up on behalf of villagers and was later selected as head of the village party committee, had "got gradually closer to the government's point of view" during the past two years of campaigning for the return of village land.
"I didn't dare say anything at the time, because if I had, all hell could have broken loose in the village," Zhuang said.
"But there were several times I tried to remind him that if he carried on the way he was going, he would make it very easy for the government to take revenge on people like me."
"I was cursed out by Lin Zuluan on many occasions [because of this]," Zhuang said.
Lin told RFA that Zhuang's comments were unfair, however.
"Some of them had their own point of view, and they wouldn't listen to what I told them," he said.
He said Zhuang had headed up a fresh land protest last April, while the committee was still in the process of repossessing a tranche of more than 450 mu (74 acres) of farmland, which was handed back to the committee by Lufeng Fengtian Livestock, owned by Hong Kong businessman Chan Man Ching.
However, villagers say that Wukan has so far managed to recover just 3,000 mu (200 hectares) of a total of nearly 10,000 mu (666 hectares) of farmland sold off by former village chief Xue Chang, who was later removed from his post and investigated for corruption.
Lin said Zhuang's attitude was "not the right one."
"I think this is very unfair ... and I have been working for him to the best of my ability," he said.
But he said he had no control over how officials in Lufeng city, which administers Wukan, would act.
"That's another matter," Lin said. "But I think they haven't done too bad a job of handling this, personally."
Prepared for jail
Yang said he is prepared to go to jail in the cause of pursuing democracy, however.
"I want to work for democracy, and I think that jail is an inevitable price to pay for it, especially in our current political system," he said.
"[Zhuang's] not going to help [China's] progress towards democracy if he's overseas," he said.
Yang said he still hopes to work within the framework of China's Constitution, and to see some of its clauses implemented in real life.
"I want to supervise local government, so that they abide by the Constitution," he said.
Zhuang's father said he believes Wukan is unlikely to get any more of its land back, however.
"Those village leaders who were elected [after the protests] have been detained," Zhuang Songkun told RFA's Cantonese Service after his son arrived in the U.S.
"They will arrest anyone who takes part in these elections."
'Forced to escape'
He said Zhuang Liehong was forced to escape by the precarious situation of former leaders of the 2011 protest, which had held off hundreds of armed police outside the village boundary wall for several days, staging vocal rallies in the village square in front of international media.
"Zhuang Liehong didn't tell me what he was doing beforehand," he said. "But they are detaining anyone who takes part in these [current] elections."
Zhuang said he feels his son has taken the right decision, however.
"Villagers here are still very angry that they haven't managed to get their land back over the past two years [since the last elections]," he said.
"The land has remained under the control of those former party committee members, and the villagers haven't had any land, nor a penny [in compensation]," he said.
The requisitioning of rural land for lucrative property deals by cash-hungry local governments triggers thousands of "mass incidents" across China every year, but many result in violent suppression, the detention of the main organizers, and intense pressure on the local population to comply with the government's wishes.
In the case of Wukan, however, the standoff with armed police who encircled the village sparked rare concessions following an investigation by the provincial government of Guangdong, which concluded that most of the villagers' demands and complaints were justified.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.