By James Pomfret

WUKAN, China (Reuters) - The chief of a village that was once seen as a symbol of grassroots democracy in Communist China said in a video that he'd accepted bribes, but disbelieving villagers retaliated on Tuesday with a mass march demanding his release as police looked on.

Lin Zuluan, the democratically elected and popular party chief of Wukan in the southern province of Guangdong, was arrested in a midnight raid on Saturday days after he made a public appeal for a mass march against illegal land seizures.

The village that made headlines in 2011 for a people's uprising against corruption has for the past few days become a focus of dissent, with demonstrations against Lin's arrest under the gaze of hundreds of heavily armed riot police.

The video, distributed to villagers via social media on Tuesday, showed Lin confessing to taking kickbacks for public works projects and purchases of resources.

"This is my biggest criminal activity," said Lin who was scruffily dressed in a check shirt as he sat before two unidentified people in a blue-walled, padded room.

The Southern Daily, an official provincial Communist Party publication, said Lin had since been sacked.

But nearly a thousand villagers, including children and the disabled, disputed the video, demanding his release in a long procession around the village, ignoring warnings from authorities to not stir up trouble.

"Village chief Lin is innocent," they chanted. "Return village chief Lin to us."


"We're not afraid of them," said one villager, Li Junmin, who heckled a group of riot police outside a police station as he passed. "We've not done anything illegal and are just demanding what's right. Why would they get us for that?"

Many protesters, in a sign of the delicate balance between different layers of authority in China, also waved red China flags while chanting "long live the Communist Party of China".

Wukan's defiance in 2011 took place during the administration of former president Hu Jintao. It remains unclear whether security forces will take a stronger line under President Xi Jinping who has cracked down on rights activists across China since taking office.

Lin's wife, Yang Zhen, told reporters in her family's walled compound she believed the confession was forced.

"This is to deceive people," she said, in the dialect of the Chaozhou region in eastern Guangdong. "He is innocent."

Since Lin's arrest, groups of young men have patrolled and guarded Wukan's perimeter on mopeds, clanging gongs at any sign of trouble. The village is about a four-hour drive east of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, where months of pro-democracy protests brought chaos to the streets in late 2014.

Government spokesman Shi Shuoyan was quoted as saying they welcomed media from home and abroad to "objectively and fairly report in accordance with the law", but warned they would take action against publications who tried to incite people in Wukan.

Police asked some media from Hong Kong what they were doing in the village, prompting some to leave.

A relative of Lin who declined to be named said arrest warrants had been issued for villagers who might cause trouble, and that Lin's grandson had been arrested on Monday.

This grandson, however, was released overnight, before Lin's videotaped confession was distributed online.

Back in 2011, thousands of Wukan villagers ransacked police and government offices and forced provincial Communist Party authorities to grant rare concessions for a people's movement.

A corrupt village chief was fired and a democratic election was permitted in 2012, resulting in the election of many protest leaders, including Lin.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)