HONG KONG — When Hollywood’s Relativity Media started filming a “hilarious comedy” in eastern China last week, it trumpeted its delight at “shooting in China, especially in a place as amazing as Linyi.”
Instead of hilarity, though, the film has produced mostly howls of outrage over the choice of location: a Chinese district notorious for its brutal mistreatment of a blind, self-taught lawyer who enraged Communist Party officials by demanding that they obey the law.
A mix of urban sprawl and villages, Linyi is the home — and prison — of Chen Guangcheng, a prominent legal activist jailed from 2006 to 2010 and now held incommunicado with his wife and young daughter. Chen’s school-age son lives with his sister-in-law.
A group of Chen’s supporters went to the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing on Tuesday with a petition pleading for the central government to intervene with officials in Linyi. The move followed an incident Sunday in which dozens of unidentified men allegedly attacked visitors to Linyi as they tried to get to Chen’s home — the latest in a long string of assaults, apparently orchestrated by Linyi’s party apparatus, on outsiders seeking to reach the activist.
Relativity Media “can shoot any place they want in China, but not in Linyi,” He Peirong, a Nanjing-based activist, said in a message posted on a Chinese version of Twitter. “They should stop making this film in Linyi at once.” If the company goes ahead, He added, the film should be boycotted: “Let us send one message to film fans with a conscience: Don’t support such a movie.”
Another Chinese micro-blogger said filming should continue, “but the name of the film should be changed to ‘Country of Doomsday, City of Hell.’ ” The movie, billed by Relativity Media as a “wild epic misadventure of debauchery and mayhem,” is called “21 and Over.”
Relativity Media, whose earlier ventures include “The Social Network” and “Bridesmaids,” declined to comment on its decision to film part of the comedy in Linyi and the dismay it has caused. A statement issued by the company Monday didn’t mention Linyi and said only that Relativity “has been a consistent and outspoken supporter of human rights and we would never knowingly do anything to undermine this commitment. We stand by that commitment and we are proud of our growing business relationships in China.”
In a news release last week, Relativity said the film is being made in association with Virgin Produced, part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Virgin Produced didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said she agreed with the filmmakers that “Linyi is an ‘amazing place’ ” but said this is because of the “amazing abuses Linyi officials have heaped on one of China’s best-known legal rights activists and his family. . . . It’s almost equally amazing that Relativity was unaware of Linyi’s notoriety.”
Chen is so well known that Congress held a hearing on his case Tuesday in Washington. The hearing was organized by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which was set up in 2000 to monitor human rights and legal issues in China.
Chen is confined to a small house in Dongshigu, a village north of Linyi City, and is under constant surveillance, his supporters say. They say he is beaten whenever he manages to make contact with the outside world, as happened in July when he made cellphone calls after a rainstorm knocked out a telephone jamming device installed by authorities.
Chen’s plight has become a rallying cry for opponents of extralegal and often secret detentions, which bypass formal procedures and are widely used by security forces to silence “troublemakers” without the bother of a trial. In another such case, Gao Zhisheng, a prominent human rights lawyer, disappeared in February 2009, reappeared for a few days in April last year and then vanished again. He has not been heard from since.
In an article published last week in Hong Kong, Jerome A. Cohen, an American authority on Chinese law and co-director of New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, said Chen has suffered “barbaric abuse” at the hands of Linyi officials. Cohen was set to testify Tuesday at the congressional hearing.
Ahead of shooting in Linyi, Relativity Media issued a news release that boasted of its support from senior local officials. It quoted Linyi’s Communist Party boss, Zhang Shajun, as describing Relativity’s chief executive, Ryan Kavanaugh, as a “good friend.”
It isn’t the first time Hollywood has raised eyebrows with the company it keeps abroad. Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank apologized recently for making a paid trip to Chechnya for the birthday celebrations of Ramzan Kadyrov, the region’s brutal Kremlin-backed leader. She said she wasn’t aware of Chechnya’s notoriety for torture, disappearances and other abuses.
In a telephone interview, Su Guiyou, director of the Linyi Propaganda Department’s Culture Industry Office, said that the district hoped to become a center for movie-making and that the American comedy “will be a good chance to publicize Linyi and will help make Linyi famous not only in China, but also the world.” The Hollywood team, he said, filmed for four days last week and shot a “dream scene” in a local quarry.
Asked about Chen and complaints about his treatment, Su said he had never heard of the activist and hung up.
Chen, who lost his sight during a childhood illness, first clashed with Linyi authorities a decade ago after he started going to court on behalf of people with disabilities who had been denied tax breaks and other rights due under Chinese law. He then campaigned against a toxic paper mill owned by a local party official.
He was thrown in jail in 2006 after he took up the cases of villagers who, in violation of Chinese law, had been forced to undergo abortions and sterilizations as part of a 2004 family-planning crackdown in Linyi. His crime: disturbing traffic and creating a public disturbance.
Chen’s plight since his release has attracted widespread attention abroad and galvanized a small but determined group of Chinese supporters, who include prominent writers, into action. They have launched petitions online and organized attempts to penetrate a no-go zone established around Chen’s house by Linyi officials. Scores have tried to visit him. Many have been roughed up by thugs working for local authorities.
Foreign diplomats and journalists have tried to visit and been turned away, sometimes with violence. Activists said Chen managed to smuggle out a video this year — and received a beating, as did his wife.
Chen’s case was a taboo topic in China’s heavily censored media for years but has recently been mentioned in print, a sign that the actions of Linyi officials are perhaps causing unease among at least some segments of the party hierarchy. The Global Times, which is controlled by the party’s official organ, the People’s Daily, published an editorial last month critical of Linyi authorities for their handling of Chen’s case.
Cohen, the New York law professor, said that instead of making a comedy, Hollywood filmmakers should go to Chen’s village and try to film there. “Publicity is the only thing that might help this sad situation,” he said.
Staff researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.