In the neighboring village of Xishigu, frightened residents tell in whispers of additional men and security agents moving into the area since late April, when Chen, who is blind, defied the odds and pulled off an escape so improbable that villagers say he possesses “magic” powers.
“I don’t dare go over there,” one woman said, pointing across the cornfields toward the bridge that separates her village from Chen’s. “They don’t have guns, they use sticks. If you look like an outsider, like you’re not from the village, they beat you.”
Residents said that since Chen fled to Beijing, the reign of fear has expanded beyond Dongshigu to at least three other close-knit villages in the city of Linyi, in the eastern province of Shandong.
Chen’s nephew has been arrested and accused of intent to murder, and lawyers attempting to represent him have been threatened and harassed.
“The crazy retribution against my family is going on right now,” Chen said Friday, speaking by telephone from Beijing’s Chaoyang hospital.
More than a week after Chen left the sanctuary of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to be reunited with his wife and children, the activist continues to recover from intestinal problems and broken bones in his foot. He said he is filled with worry about his extended family and is waiting for Chinese authorities to fulfill their pledges to let him leave for the United States and to investigate the local officials who kept him imprisoned in his farm house here for nine months.
“The abuse of power and the evil committed by the local government still haven’t been brought under control,” Chen said. “I worry that the reprisals, the infringement of people’s rights, the violations of the law back at home will get even worse.”
Dongshigu and the other villages around it are small, semi-urban neighborhoods with rows of concrete farmhouses separated by a maze of narrow alleys, just off Linyi city’s main road, where the farmers grow corn and peanuts and raise chickens and pigs.
A visit to the area by The Washington Post seemed to confirm Chen’s fears. When a reporter’s car slowed down as if to turn onto the road leading to Dongshigu, men raced over, yelling and kicking the side of the car.
The vehicle was then followed for several miles, including at high speeds when it reached the expressway, by as many as three black cars. One car had no license plates, front or back. Another was registered in Laiwu city, in the center of Shandong province, and the third was registered in Weifang city, north of Linyi. The use of cars from different cities suggested a province-wide security and surveillance operation, not confined to Linyi.