By William Wan
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 10:21 PM
SHANGHAI - Controversy has returned to the village of Dongshigu, and with it, a security crackdown. The source of both: the release of Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught lawyer who drew worldwide attention to his rural neighbors' stories of forced sterilizations and late-term abortions by local authorities.
After a two-hour trial, Chen had spent the past four years and three months imprisoned in nearby Linyi city in Shandong province. His five fellow lawyers were prevented from attending the trial, either by being beaten up or detained the night before.
So the mood in the village was tense on Thursday as Chen was released and returned home. Dozens of plainclothes police officers, who arrived the day before, stood watch outside his house and at the entrances to the village, residents said. Chen's wife, who had talked to foreign reporters Wednesday night, suddenly could no longer be reached. The family's telephone and cellphone service had been cut, relatives explained.
"The plainclothes police brought him early this morning at 6 o'clock. Everyone saw it," said one of Chen's neighbors, who did not want her name used for fear of reprisals from the police camping out in the village.
Villagers said they are alternately thankful for Chen's work and fearful of being associated with him. Reporters from the Associated Press who tried to enter the village Thursday said men in plainclothes came running, scuffled with the reporters and pursued them at high speed as they left the area. Local authorities did not return calls.
Chen emerged in 2005 as an improbable but charismatic leader against local authorities. A peasant who was blind from infancy, he had traveled to Beijing a decade earlier to complain about his family's taxes. He returned with a refund and admission to a university to study acupuncture - one of the few professions in China available to the blind. While in college, however, he audited law classes and learned enough to take action when neighbors began telling him stories of abuse by local officials carrying out China's population-control policies.
In 2005, a Washington Post reporter followed Chen as he prepared for a class-action lawsuit by recording several villagers' stories of strong-arm enforcement of China's one-child policy. Many described government raids on their homes and being forced to undergo sterilization. Women who were illegally pregnant with a third or fourth child said family members were jailed and beaten until the women came out of hiding and agreed to a late-term abortion.
Such practices, experts say, were the result of desperation among local authorities to meet government birth limits and quotas, which can determine whether a local leader is promoted or dismissed.
Senior officials in China's central government at the time confirmed hearing complaints about abuses in Linyi that, if true, they considered illegal. But months later, Chen was arrested on charges of destruction of property and causing others to disrupt traffic.
"It became a fight between the government's power and people's rights," said Li Heping, an activist lawyer who has worked on Chen's case. "He became a symbol of human rights consciousness in China."
Chen's arrest was one of the first in a wave of detentions and hard-line tactics against activist lawyers. Since then, the government has started using more subtle means, such as revoking the lawyers' licenses to practice. There are signs that the one-child policy is similarly in decline, with demographers warning that China might face a baby shortage in the future.
Although more rare now, forced sterilizations and abortions are still carried out as a means of birth control. In southern China in April, for example, officials in Puning City launched a campaign to sterilize almost 10,000 people, cracking down on parents violating the one-child policy.
It is unclear whether Chen will continue the work he began before his imprisonment. Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer who was supposed to defend Chen at his 2006 trial but was detained by police, said: "He did so much good for the villagers. I hope he will be able to adhere to those original principles and beliefs he had."
One family friend, who managed to reach Chen on Thursday morning, said prison has ruined his health. In jail, he was beaten by other inmates and had chronically severe diarrhea, she said. The friend, who requested anonymity for fear authorities would figure out how she managed to talk to Chen, said Chen cried when he was reunited with his family. One of his children, still a baby when he was arrested, is now attending school.
"He asked me to convey his thanks for all the friends who cared about him," Chen's friend said. "We didn't talk much about the future. He's trying to restart his life now. But I suspect prison has not changed his core beliefs. If there is any change, it will be a change of tactics."
Staff researchers Liu Liu and Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.