DONGSHIGU, China — When he was asked whether it was possible to drive down the country lane to the village of Dongshigu, the man in black wanted to know, "What are you up to?"
Told that a passenger in the back seat worked for a newspaper, the plainclothes guard gave a guttural yell. Then he lunged through the car's half-open window and tried to drag away the journalist's Chinese translator.
As the journalist and his colleague sped off, the man sprinted to a nearby silver Volkswagen whose license plates were covered. The Volkswagen gave chase last Thursday at speeds that reached 105 mph in the middle of the afternoon. It pulled back only after blinking its headlights, possibly to signal a roadside police checkpoint that the journalist's vehicle was on the way.
The aggressive security cordon is maintained for just one reason: to keep a blind man from speaking to the world.
Since he left prison last September, Chen Guangcheng, a largely self-taught legal crusader, has been held under extrajudicial house arrest that's said to include floodlights installed around his home and escorts for his 6-year-old daughter to and from school. Until the Communist Party of China decides otherwise, the 39-year-old Chen, instantly recognizable by his dark glasses and mustache, will remain tucked away in a lawless limbo.
Chen's offense against the state was trying to organize a class-action lawsuit in 2005 on behalf of victims of forced abortions and sterilizations in this nook of eastern Shandong province. During a brutal attempt by local officials to satisfy national "one-child" population control, some women reportedly were dragged off into the night to be "fixed." Others came for the procedures after their family members were assaulted.
A government commission subsequently confirmed Chen's claims that "illegal family planning practices" had taken place. Still, Chen, a soft-spoken man who's been blind since childhood, was sentenced to 51 months in August 2006 on charges of damaging property and gathering people to block traffic.
The ordeal is a stark example of the lengths that Chinese officials will go to stamp out potential challenges to their authoritarian power. The party's propaganda rests on the notion that its rule is crucial to the advancement of the masses. But those who demand widespread civil rights for the people do so at the risk of harassment and detention.
With his prison sentence completed, Chen found himself a captive in Dongshigu. Recent attempts to visit Chen by Chinese activists and ordinary citizens have ended in violent confrontations or wild sprints through the countryside to avoid roving gangs of thugs, not unlike McClatchy's own experience last week.
Wang Xuezhen, a 30-year-old purchasing agent for a furniture business and online activist, recounted her own recent try to enter Dongshigu.
"A bag was put on my head, I was down on the ground and those people kicked me over and over," she said.
As with other incidents at the village, it couldn't be determined whether the men involved had connections to security bureaus or were just hired muscle.
Wang returned to the area last week to file a complaint and try to recover her belongings from the police in Linyi, a city with administrative oversight of Dongshigu.
As Wang spoke during an interview at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a man with a thick build and a closely cropped haircut sat at the next table and listened intently. Wang, a small woman who keeps her long black hair tucked behind the ears, gestured at the man and said he probably was following her.
Others who traveled with Wang last month corroborated her account of rough treatment. After the unidentified assailants handed her over to local authorities, Wang said, she was told, "Chen Guangcheng is against our society and against the party."
When she asked why she'd been beaten and then detained, Wang recounted with exasperation in her voice, police said that "the villagers had accused me of trying to steal a cow."
McClatchy's attempts to reach area officials for comment were unsuccessful. At the Linyi propaganda office, a man surnamed Zhang claimed he hadn't received a faxed interview request, even after it was sent four times. A woman in the propaganda office of Yinan County, which is under Linyi, said that, "I am sorry, but our fax machine is broken."
Asked when her supervisors might be available, the woman, also surnamed Zhang, said, "It's hard to say. Perhaps we can talk about that in the future."
Before his incarceration, Chen Guangcheng had been part of a "weiquan," or rights defense movement, that included lawyers and intellectuals who pushed for the government to abide by its own constitution.
The government's response was severe:
_ Hu Jia, a dissident involved with HIV/AIDS issues and a friend of Chen's, was convicted in April 2008 for "incitement to subvert state power." After Hu was released from prison this past June, authorities told him not to speak with the media under threat of re-incarceration.
_ The vague and malleable "incitement" charge also featured in the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, a writer and last year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who's serving an 11-year sentence.
His wife, Liu Xia, was placed under house arrest after the Nobel announcement last October. Though not accused of committing any crime, she hasn't appeared in public for more than a year.
_ Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer, disappeared into custody in February 2009 and didn't surface until March 2010. A few weeks later, he vanished again, but not before giving an interview to the Associated Press in which he said he'd been savagely beaten. Gao hasn't been heard from since.
Chinese officials in Beijing "are not willing to admit mistakes. If they did, Chen's case would become a crack in the dam of the Communist Party," Hu Jia said in a phone interview, for which he asked to be named in spite of warnings from police.
At the local level, Hu said, officials have good reason to want Chen kept quiet.
"Chen's case exposed both a lot of corruption by local officials and human rights issues," Hu said. "If Chen's case was ever solved justly, a lot of local authorities would go to jail."
A smuggled video of Chen and his wife, Yuan Weijing, describing their plight surfaced in February. A U.S.-based Christian rights group said irate officials made sure the couple were harshly punished for telling their story outside the confines of the village. A letter reportedly written by Yuan said that more than 10 men had covered her with a blanket and then kicked her in the ribs. Chen, she wrote, was manhandled until he lost consciousness.
An editorial in both the English and Chinese editions of the state-run Global Times newspaper earlier this month called on officials to release more information about Chen's condition. It also suggested the time has come to "depoliticize the issue."
"Liberated from the scorching scrutiny of media and human rights organizations, local governments might be given more room to settle matters," said the editorial, which cast the issue as being "more to do with local governance level than nationwide political worries."
A man with connections near Dongshigu who's been helping online activists gather information about Chen said he usually advised visitors not to go.
"There are guards at every intersection. It's like playing a game in which there's no way to get to the final round," said the man, who asked that his name not be used out of concern for his family's safety.
Meeting with a reporter at a university campus in Linyi, the man said it wasn't clear to him how the Chen story would end.
"The situation has become ludicrous; so many people watching over a blind man," he said, later adding that, "if you want to cover up the truth with lies, you have to keep coming up with lies, and the lie will only get bigger and bigger."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011