Chen Guangcheng is gone, but his village stays locked down


LINYI, China — At the turnoff for the sleepy farming village of Dongshigu, a man wearing a straw hat appears to be selling watermelons at a rough-hewn stand. But when an approaching car slows, burly young men dart out from behind the nearby concrete house and rush to head it off.

“It’s not a real fruit stand. They’re pretending to sell watermelons so they can spy on people coming in and out of the village,” said a 44-year-old farmer surnamed Sun from a village across the road.

Black cars with camouflage cloth over their license plates — paramilitary, say villagers — hover at intersections along the main road near Dongshigu. Men lurk in a peach orchard to intercept pedestrians.

The prisoner is gone, but the prison hasn’t shut down.

After 19 months under house arrest in Dongshigu, blind activist Chen Guangcheng escaped last month by climbing a wall at night and making his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He was flown to New York with his wife and two children.

All of which adds a touch of the “closing the barn door after the horse has bolted” absurdity to the level of security here. Weeks after Chen’s escape, Dongshigu and three surrounding villages, with a combined population of 2,500, remain under virtual lockdown.

The surreal cordon is symptomatic of a Chinese security apparatus so paranoid that any sign of resistance creates an overreaction, which gives rise to more resistance.

“They spend so much money on security, and it only makes China less secure,” said Zhao Zhenrong, a retired Communist Party official from western China, who this month launched a petition drive to remove Zhou Yongkang, the national security czar who is also under fire for his support of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai.

Chen, a self-trained lawyer who campaigned against abuses by family-planning officials, says one of the security officials told him that 70 million yuan — about $11 million at today’s exchange rate — had been earmarked to keep him isolated in Dongshigu since 2005.

“Local officials don’t want this saga to end, because it will cut off their biggest source of income,” Chen said in a telephone interview on the eve of his departure for New York.

Depending on the time, a few dozen to more than 100 security personnel are on duty guarding Dongshigu and surrounding villages, locals say. About one-quarter of them are police or municipal employees. The rest are what are called da shou, or “beating hands.” Many are relatives of local cadres and they usually earn 100 Chinese yuan, or about $16 a day — good wages in these parts.

If anything, Chen’s escape has only served to infuriate the Communist Party cadres who ordered the security cordon in the first place.

“After little blind guy escaped, they got frightened,” said 85-year-old Shao Shijiang, using a popular nickname for Chen. On Thursday, he pointed out to reporters the security personnel hiding in the fields in his village, Xishigu, which is on the other side of a small, muddy river from Dongshigu.

“There are men over there. In the trees too. Next to the road,” he said gesturing toward a pedestrian bridge over the river. “Little blind guy has caused us lots of trouble.”

Chen became the object of obsession in 2005 when he filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of villagers contending that forced abortions and sterilizations violated China’s family planning laws. He was at first confined to his home and then arrested on spurious charges of “intentionally damaging property and gathering crowds to disturb transport order.”

After serving a four-year sentence, he was released in September 2010 to house arrest — but a most extraordinary house arrest: They built a prison around his home.

Chen’s windows were covered with metal shutters and the perimeter cordoned off with an electric fence. Floodlights illuminated the house by night. Authorities put seven surveillance cameras at the entrance to the village and around the house and installed cellphone-jamming equipment to prevent Chen from having any contact with outsiders. Only Chen’s mother was permitted in and out of the house to buy food.

Not only was the security stifling; it was brutal. Chen’s wife was once tied to a chair for two days. When the couple made a video showing a guard peering over cornstalks around their house, the guards took revenge by wrapping Chen’s wife in a quilt and kicking her, breaking a rib. Lawyers and activists who tried to visit Chen were beaten and robbed.

Villager Sun said: “I used to see how hard they’d beat people, with their fists, with their boots. It made me so angry.”

The efforts to isolate Chen became increasingly counterproductive as his fame grew around the world. The six-hour drive from Beijing to tiny Dongshigu became a kind of pilgrimage for human rights activists, legislators, journalists. “Batman” star Christian Bale tried to visit in December and scuffled with the same thugs.

And the security ultimately didn’t work. Throughout the month of April, Chen pretended to be bed-ridden so that his captors would let down their guard. On the night of April 20, Chen climbed over his courtyard wall and hid in a neighbor’s pigpen. Accustomed to navigating without sight, compensating with his keen hearing, Chen waited until the guards were asleep and crossed the shallow river into Xishigu village.

He was taken to the home of a villager whose daughter he’d helped in a dispute with family planning, and that villager in turn contacted his older brother, Chen Guangfu. He contacted an activist in Beijing, who got a car and sneaked Chen Guangcheng out of Xishigu.

Security forces are still trying to retaliate, Chen’s supporters say. In the middle of the night, they burst into Chen Guangfu’s house and a knife fight broke out. Chen Kegui, the brother’s son, is now under arrest on charges of attempted murder. Chen Guangfu was put under house arrest; the surveillance cameras and other equipment were moved to his house. But he slipped out last week to consult lawyers in Beijing about his son’s case. He has since returned.

Working in the fields Thursday, a small group of villagers checked to make sure no guards were looking and then volunteered how much they’d appreciated Chen. Not only had he fought family planning, but he had also succeeded in getting new roads and infrastructure.

“Where is Guangcheng now?” asked a 48-year-old woman who gave her name as Duan, pausing as she watered sweet potato seedlings.

When told he was in New York, she broke out into a big smile, as did the other villagers. “I don’t believe it. In New York. With his wife and children? That’s great. You know more than we do.”