With the checkpoints removed and the hired thugs and police gone, it is finally possible to enter the home village of blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng.
For 19 months, plainclothes guards had roughed up or chased away journalists and activists who tried to visit Chen. Then in the middle of the night last weekend – June 2, by most accounts -- the sentry huts at the front of the village were torn down and the rings of surveillance dismantled. News of the development, two weeks after Chen had flown to possible exile in the United States, spread several days later.
So with the coast seemingly clear on Saturday morning, a reporter stopped to chat with a farmer on the side of the road in Dongshigu and asked: What do people think of Chen?
“Chen Guangcheng is a good man,” said the farmer, wearing navy cotton pants and a green camouflage shirt. Before he could get another word out, however, a man identified by locals as a village official rode by on a scooter, honked his horn and said, “Don’t talk.” Moments later, the official circled back and bellowed, “Bu zhidao! Bu zhidao!” – Chinese for “don’t know” – apparently the only response the farmer was supposed to give.
A second farmer had explained earlier that, “Chen Guangcheng had a very good reputation, the common people sympathized with him,” when the same official, in a grey-striped polo shirt, rushed over to command, “Go! Go!”
It was a far cry from the previous year and a half, when dozens of men enforced a brutish cordon around this village of less than 500 people in eastern China’s Shandong Province. But the scene of petty bureaucrats – the village representative was joined by others from county offices -- harassing anyone who wanted to publicly discuss Chen seemed a fitting coda as his story fades from the headlines. It has been a remarkable example of how dissent is silenced in China.
Chen was sentenced to 51 months in prison during 2006 after his advocacy on behalf of women who’d suffered forced abortions or sterilizations as part of efforts to enforce China’s one child per family policy. The actual charges were destruction of public property and organizing a crowd to disrupt traffic. Most took those allegations as an obvious ploy to punish Chen, a self-taught legal activist, for his opposition of local officials.
After Chen’s release in 2010, his new confinement began.
At its zenith, the security footprint reportedly reached more than 100 men, if not hundreds, who occupied positions across the fields and roads surrounding Chen’s home. There were guards in the family’s courtyard, just outside the door, at the nearest corner, the intersection after that, and on and on – a chain of men stretching in every direction, said Chen’s older brother, Chen Guangfu.
The outlay of resources was especially striking in contrast to the rustic nature of the Chen household, seen for the first time, now that security is gone.
The 40-year-old Chen Guangcheng, blinded by a fever as an infant, shared a small bedroom with his wife and young daughter. Sticks of bamboo held up mosquito netting around a bed. Tarps covered the bare walls.
Their room sat next to that of Chen’s 78-year-old mother, Wang Jinxiang. Her room is divided between sleeping quarters and a sitting area fashioned from a worn sofa and chair. Conversation with Wang, who speaks with a heavy regional dialect, was punctuated by a flyswatter’s slap that stirred the dirt on the concrete floor.
“Everyday, at least three people followed me. No matter where I went, they followed me,” said Wang, a woman with high cheekbones and a bandage on a finger she cut recently while working with wheat. “They didn’t speak, they just followed me.”
Following Chen Guangcheng’s escape from his extra-judicial house detention on April 22, the guards stayed in place. The same held true when four days later Chen sparked a diplomatic showdown after entering the U.S. embassy in Beijing, and their presence continued even after he flew to America on May 19.
There’s been rampant speculation that the security infrastructure was finally cleaned up in Dongshigu last week because area officials worry that senior Chinese leadership will order an investigation of what happened in the village.
On Saturday, Chen Guangfu, 55, said that he’d welcome an inquiry but so far has seen no evidence of one. Instead, he’s been ordered to keep quiet about his family’s troubles.
“They told me not to speak publicly about these issues, they told me I can talk only about good things,” he said. “I’m very worried, but I have to speak. I need to let the outside world know the truth. If I do not speak -- well, they are speaking everyday and putting black and white upside down, saying that black is white and white is black.”
When authorities discovered that his brother had broken free from Dongshigu, Chen Guangfu said, men broke into his home on April 27 and dragged him to an interrogation room in a nearby city. During the three nights and two days that he was held, Chen Guangfu said, staff from the Public Security Bureau slapped him repeatedly, stomped on his feet and struck him with a belt.
“They took my belt off me, folded it over and whipped me on the hands,” he said, flexing his left thumb and saying it still has no feeling.
His 32-year-old son, Chen Kegui, who lived on the same property, also was confronted by a group of men at about the same time. After the melee – Chen Kegui wielding knives against their clubs, according to his account – Chen Kegui was charged with attempted murder and is now in custody.
During the conversation on Saturday, Chen Kegui’s five-year-old son, Chen Guangfu’s grandson, wandered nearby. Occasionally, he paused to listen.
“He asks me every day, ‘Why did they take my dad away?’ ” Chen Guangfu said. “I can’t explain it to him.”
Later, a reporter asked one of the local officials why the guards had left.
“It’s not clear,” replied the man, who said he’d been sent by the county to help the village.
Why had the guards been there in the first place?
“That’s also not clear,” he said, adding that it was time for the visitors leave because, “it’s better not to disturb the common people.”