A Wukan official who helped lead the village's historic anti-corruption protests in 2011 was released last night after being held for more than 24 hours on bribery allegations.
The criminal detention of deputy Wukan chief Yang Semao on Thursday came just days before the village is expected to hold a pivotal election that many observers believe will decide the fate of its nascent democracy.
After his release last night, Yang denied accepting bribes related to village projects, as claimed in a statement by the Lufeng county government, which oversees Wukan.
"They only asked me things about my work, likes projects I am in charge of," Yang said. "But they can't find anything because I didn't take any bribes."
Yang, a businessman in his late 40s, helped lead a series of mass protests after officials in the eastern Guangdong village sold one of its last pieces of collectively owned land to developers without their approval.
The protests were reported by media around the world and the ruling Communist Party eventually allowed villagers to elect a village committee from among their own ranks.
A meeting to set a date for a new election of village leaders was scheduled for yesterday, but has been rescheduled for today. The election is expected to be held on Tuesday, according to Xinhua.
"I will still attend tomorrow's assembly meeting and stand for re-election," Yang said. "I have chosen my battles and will fight for Wukan's democracy."
Some members of the village committee have become disillusioned with politics and their failure to secure the return of lost village land. Yang is only one of the Wukan's democratically elected grass-roots leaders that has not withdrawn from the election.
"It can't be just a coincidence," Wukan activist Zhang Jianxing said of Yang's detention. Zhang said that Yang had been organising villagers for the election, adding that "many villagers are angry about the return of the former cadres, but are afraid to speak out".
Donghai township, which administers Wukan, has appointed former village official Xue Yubao as deputy party secretary. Villagers said he appears tipped to become village leader.
Xiong Wei , a Peking University legal scholar who advised villagers during the first election, said authorities were likely concerned that holding Yang might prompt unrest.
"Yang already has some influence among the villagers," Xiong said. "The villagers also don't want to lose anyone who's sincere and acts in their interest."