A deputy chief of Wukan, who helped lead anti-graft protests that spurred a landmark election in the village, has been detained for alleged bribery.
Hong Ruichao was placed under criminal investigation on Tuesday afternoon on suspicion of pocketing funds from public projects, the information bureau of Lufeng city in Guangdong province said on Sina Weibo.
The news comes at a sensitive time, as the village prepares for new polls on March 31 and April 1.
Hong and another village deputy, Yang Semao, had earlier this month questioned the appointment of officials from the old regime to the Wukan party committee and launched a petition to hold a village assembly ahead of the elections.
"Why do they detain him? Why don't they arrest officials who sell our lands?" Hong's sister, Hong Ruiqing, said on her weibo, adding that she received the detention notice yesterday morning.
Yang was detained for alleged bribery last Thursday, but was bailed out to help organise the elections. "It is suspicious that the local authorities are interfering in the election [preparations]," Yang said.
All elected grass-roots leaders, except Yang, have withdrawn from re-election.
Wukan generated headlines worldwide in 2011 when thousands of villagers staged protests for four months against government land grabs and corruption.
In a first for the country, the ruling Communist Party eventually allowed villagers to choose their leaders in 2012. Seven village heads were elected from the grass roots - a victory observers dubbed the "Wukan model" and which prompted calls for elections in other mainland cities.
Three years on, however, the residents have become increasingly disillusioned and are unhappy that their lands have not been returned.
Peng Peng, a researcher at the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, said Hong and Yang's cases raised concerns about officials meddling - but said the upcoming elections had diminished in significance as the momentum from the 2012 reform had waned.
"The election will not have a major impact nationwide. Its significance is overestimated."