One of the leaders of the Wukan demonstrations that attracted worldwide coverage three years ago says he fled to the United States to seek asylum because he no longer felt safe on the mainland.
Zhuang Liehong arrived in New York earlier this year and had intended to maintain a low profile as he seeks refugee status in the United States.
But he said he felt compelled to speak out after others who organised the demonstrations in their village in Guangdong province were arrested ahead of an election for the village committee early next week.
"I've been trying very hard to keep a low profile, but the authorities just won't give up," Zhuang said. "Now that they have arrested Hong [Ruichao ], I can no longer remain silent."
Wukan generated headlines in 2011 when thousands of villagers staged protests for four months against government land grabs and corruption.
The next year the ruling Communist Party allowed villagers for the first time to choose their own leaders. Seven village heads were elected from the grass roots - a victory observers dubbed the "Wukan model" and which prompted calls for similar elections in other mainland cities.
The upcoming poll on March 31 and April 1 will decide membership of the village committee.
Concerns about the independence of the coming vote arose when two village deputy heads, elected at the same time as Zhuang, were detained for alleged bribery.
Villagers said authorities were trying to sink the village's nascent democracy.
Hong has been under criminal detention since March 18, accused by officials of pocketing funds from public projects. Fellow village deputy Yang Semao was taken away for questioning on March 13, but was allowed out on bail to help with the election.
Early this month, Yang and Hong 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 election.
Yang was arrested the day before a scheduled meeting to set a date for the vote. It was delayed and hosted by the authorities instead, lasting less then one hour with village representatives complaining their suggestions had not been accepted.
Zhuang said he was deeply worried for Wukan and insisted that Hong and Yang were innocent. The bribery charges, which he said were false, concerned an incident in 2012 but officials were only now raising the issue to interfere with the elections.
"The government's objective is clear. They don't want the pair to run for re-election," Zhuang said. "They have not been tamed by the authorities like some other committee members."
Most residents are disillusioned with fledgeling democracy in the village and are unhappy that most of their land has not been returned.
All elected grass-roots leaders, except Yang, have withdrawn from re-election.
Zhuang said in his interview with the South China Morning Post that he was the mastermind behind the demonstrations in 2011.
In 2008, an open letter signed by "Patriot 1" denounced the illegal sale of land in the eastern Guangdong village, and the writer's identity remained a mystery. Zhuang said he signed the letter. "I used the pen name to deal with the media, and also to protect myself," he said. "I knew the authorities would come after me if they knew I was the person behind it all."
Zhuang launched the Wukan Hot-Blooded Patriotic Youth League in 2008 with several campaigns against land grabs. But he decided to give up politics and quit the village committee in October 2012, and return to his business. It was an incident the following April that convinced him to leave Wukan.
"The village committee had successfully regained a former farm, one of the most important properties in our land disputes, that had been sold illegally," Zhuang said. He brought a portrait of Xue Jinbo, the former Wukan protest leader who died in police custody, to the farm buildings, which had been "seriously damaged by the departing tenants".
"Furious villagers grabbed Xue's portrait and marched through the street, prompting another showdown with police. The authorities wanted to charge me with disrupting public order and they put me on their black list.
"After that, I knew I had to leave the village. If I remained, the authorities would have settled scores with me.
"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."