After escaping from a brutish house arrest in eastern China last month, blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng claimed that the cordon around his village had been a multimillion-dollar operation.
Chen described a structure of teams and commanders devoted to harassing him and preventing supporters from visiting his village. In military terms, it would add up to several platoons.
Even in China, notorious for heavy-handed security, the account seemed exceptional.
But some four weeks later, with Chen almost 400 miles away in a Beijing hospital and about to leave for the United States, at least some of the extensive network of surveillance and its chain of command remained in place.
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A reporter attempting on Wednesday to walk the stretch of farm fields and groves between this village and Chen’s hometown of Dongshigu was intercepted by two guards at a turn on a small dirt track. Their stools were positioned so that they could easily see anyone crossing to Dongshigu across a remaining flat expanse, the length of about six and a half football fields.
On the highway to Dongshigu, police cars and vans still zipped back and forth, their lights flashing. Men lurked in the meadows.
Just three days later, Chen and his immediate family flew out of Beijing, bound for Newark, N.J., and an expected fellowship at New York University.
The continued siege of Dongshigu he left behind underscores the punishing weight with which China enforces its version of social order. It suggests, too, the steep costs of such an approach – the inertia of an authoritarian system that becomes difficult to change, and a messy legacy that it must then try to conceal.
Speaking by phone from his hospital room this week, Chen said the rings of guards in and around his village endure because local officials responsible for the campaign don’t want stories of their lawless and cruel behavior spreading.
“Everything they’ve done has been illegal and has violated the law,” said Chen, who's 40. “At the least, that’s what they’re trying to cover up.”
Describing the mindset of leadership in the area, Chen used a Chinese phrase meaning that someone has become so suspicious and fearful that “every bush and tree looks like an enemy soldier.”
When Chen’s flight from Dongshigu was discovered, his brother was dragged from his house and detained for two days and three nights of interrogation at a government office. He was hit in the face while his feet were chained together, according to a videotaped interview he gave to Hong Kong media. That man’s son, Chen Guangcheng’s nephew, was also detained after he tried to resist men who’d stormed into his house.
The nephew, Chen Kegui, is still in custody and is accused of attempted murder. A lawyer from a high-profile Beijing law firm who was retained by the Chen family, Ding Xikui, said on Friday that officials told him that he and another attorney would not be allowed to represent or visit Chen Kegui. They were informed that Chen already had been assigned lawyers, Ding said.
In receiving wide international attention, Chen’s case has become an unusually public example of the deep flaws of China’s political and legal system.
“There is no question that the security complex that has grown up in China in the interest of preserving stability has a way of perpetuating itself, because it tends to be geared towards repressing or hiding problems rather than dealing with root causes,” Joshua Rosenzweig, a noted independent human rights researcher based in Hong Kong, said in an email exchange.
He added, “In this particular case, I think there’s probably also an interest in keeping wraps on the local situation and preventing details of Chen’s persecution from being exposed.”
Chen was placed in house detention in 2005 after his efforts to organize a class-action lawsuit on behalf of women who’d been subjected to forced abortions or sterilizations. Those measures were part of a local push to comply with the country’s one child per family policy.
That same year, the country’s National Population and Family Planning Commission acknowledged that “initial investigation indicates illegal family planning practices that violate people’s legal rights and interests do exist” around Linyi, the city with administrative oversight of Dongshigu. Those responsible were dismissed from duty, with some under investigation and others in detention, according to state media.
Nonetheless, Chen was sentenced in 2006 to 51 months in prison for damaging property and organizing a crowd to disrupt traffic. The verdict was widely regarded as retribution for his exposure of local wrongdoing.
The central government apparently did not object to the sentence. The next year, the Communist Party secretary of Linyi at the time, a man named Li Qun, was promoted to the standing committee of the surrounding province of Shandong, its top decision-making body. In 2010, Li moved up to party secretary of Shandong’s port city of Qingdao, a location with national significance.
Upon release in September 2010, authorities delivered Chen back to his home and held him there under extra-judicial detention until his escape on April 22, some 19 months later. In the interim, Chen said, both he and his wife were beaten viciously.
At Pengjiazhai, less than a mile from Dongshigu, one man standing close to the village committee office on Wednesday offered a defense of China’s family planning efforts.
“When speaking of the one-child policy, Chen Guangcheng’s understanding and the understanding of most common people are different,” said the man, who spoke Chinese without the heavy accent of most locals.
Using phrases often heard from officials, the man, who gave only his last name, Peng, said that “families having multiple babies should be managed.”
Two women standing close by, both of whom looked nervous, said they didn’t know anything about Chen.
The continued desire to control access here quickly became clear on the path to Dongshigu. One of the village sentries peered from under his straw hat at a reporter’s credentials and demanded to know what he was doing. A second, younger man took out a cellphone and made a call that quickly brought a moped with two more men. They said nothing and made calls of their own. Soon, a silver minivan with dark windows drove up.
No one in the group responded to questions about Chen, nor did they identify themselves. They were not, however, physically aggressive. An attempt by McClatchy to visit Dongshigu in October ended in a high-speed chase.
This time, the man in the hat said, “I think you should leave. There aren’t many things here you need to do interviews about.” Shortly after, the group escorted the journalist for about half a mile back to Pengjiazai. A black Volkswagen sedan was there to meet the group. A beefy man, to whom the others deferred, got out of the car and said, “Go back. It’s not safe here.” He then squawked in English: “Bye bye.”
The reporter was trailed back to Linyi, roughly a 30-mile trip. Once inside the city, a black Toyota with two men inside shadowed his every move for more than seven hours. As the reporter knocked on the window to ask who they were, the man in the passenger seat just lifted up his phone camera and, presumably, began recording.