By Maxim Duncan
WUKAN, China, March 31 (Reuters) - Villagers in southern Guangdong who launched an open revolt against local authorities in 2011 held an election on Monday amid intensifying pressure against protest leaders, who have either been detained or sought asylum abroad.
The government pressure is casting doubt on China's ability to establish grassroots democracy and underscores the limits of China's village elections, over which local governments often assert control.
In 2012, Wukan, a village of 15,000 people, was seen as a model of rural democratic experimentation after it conducted secret-ballot elections, in a first, for new village leaders.
A year before, residents rose up, expelled village authorities and barricaded themselves for 10 days after a violent standoff over corrupt land grabs.
The protests ended peacefully after Wang Yang, the reform-minded party secretary of Guangdong province, sent a senior official to negotiate with the villagers.
Now the 2011 protest leaders say that local authorities have stepped up intimidation again. One of the leaders, Zhuang Liehong, said he felt so threatened that he fled to the United States this year and is now seeking asylum there.
"I thought that if I didn't leave Wukan village, I would be finished by the authorities," he told Reuters in New York, adding that he had expected that the current government "would need to take various measures to suppress those of us who were defending our rights".
"I think now to hold a fair, just, and open election is impossible. Some of the old village committee members who were suspected of making corrupt land deals have been reassigned to positions in the local government."
Prosecutors from the Lufeng county government, which oversees Wukan, have detained Yang Semao and Hong Ruichao, both 2011 protest leaders, on corruption charges. Yang was released after 24 hours.
The Lufeng government could not be reached for comment.
Wukan residents streamed into a schoolyard to vote for a village chief, two deputies and a village council. Paramilitary police stood guard outside the school.
Many villagers in Wukan are increasingly disillusioned about the prospects of getting their land back. They have complained that the last village council had failed to get back much of the land, which was sold off.
"They made promises," said a villager surnamed Lin. "So far, they've only repaired roads, and done some things, but there's a lot they haven't done."
Despite this, village elections, which have been permitted since the late 1980s, presage a broader transformation in China's political system, said Sui Muqing, a rights lawyer based in the southern city of Guangzhou.
"On the road to reform, the existence of problems is normal, but we can't refuse to pursue this (village elections) because we fear problems," he said. "Ultimately, this is better than being ruled by the gun." (Additional reporting by James Pomfret in Hong Kong and Beijing Newsroom, Writing by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)