Release of Chinese activist brings security crackdown to village

Chen Guangcheng
Chen Guangcheng
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By William Wan
Friday, September 10, 2010

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.

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