LINYI, China — At the turnoff to the road leading to Dongshigu, the home village of activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng, burly men hold sway, hiding their faces behind sunglasses, broad-brimmed straw hats and shirts held up to their noses. They block anyone from entering the village, shouting at and kicking vehicles that slow down or venture too close.
Plainclothes security officers wait nearby in unmarked black cars, ready to tail outsiders in a conspicuously sinister form of close-up surveillance.
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.
Interviews conducted in Xishigu, the nearby village, revealed a climate of fear. “We’re all scared,” said one young man, a farmer in his mid-30s with a young daughter. “They might come and arrest us.”
A 56-year-old man who gave his surname as Wang said Chen’s many relatives in the area are all under strict watch, including those not under house arrest. “Even if his family members are allowed to go out, they are followed by those thugs,” the man said.
Chen’s older brother and his wife are under de facto house arrest in Dongshigu, prohibited from leaving by the men who control entry and exit to the village. Their 31-year-old son, Chen Kegui, is being held at the Yinan county detention center in Shandong province, charged with attempted “intentional murder,” according to lawyer Liu Weiguo.
Chen Kegui injured three people who stormed into his house late on April 26, the night authorities discovered that Chen Guangcheng had escaped, Liu said. The three turned out to be government officials, including one named Zhang Jian, a senior official from the town of Shuanghou, in Yinan county, who Liu said sustained relatively serious injuries.
“It’s unreasonable to accuse Chen Kegui of murder,” said Liu, who showed The Washington Post a copy of the detention order. “He acted in self-defense.”
Liu, in an interview Thursday in his office in Jinan, the provincial capital, said he had initially agreed to represent the young man a day after the incident, in response to a request from Chen Kegui’s wife. Police warned him not to get involved, however, and to give no interviews.
“They said they would visit my mother,” Liu said, recounting a telephoned threat from security police. “Now the pressure on me is really enormous.”
Liu said he arranged for a lawyer from Guangzhou, far away in southern China, to take Chen Kegui’s case. But he said that the lawyer, Chen Wuquan, had his law license abruptly confiscated by the Guangzhou Lawyers Association. Liu said he considers the actions against the lawyers an attack on the rule of law and a violation of the principle that lawyers should be able to represent any client free of government harassment.
“I’ve been banned from taking this case, lawyer Chen has been banned, and more lawyers will be banned. But please tell the outside world that the lawyers won’t quit,” Liu said. “This is not for Chen’s family or for any individual. This is for the dignity of all Chinese.”
Here in Linyi, some villagers know Chen Guangcheng as the blind neighbor who helped them fight local authorities’ aggressive enforcement of the Communist central government’s family-planning program, which was launched in 1979.
Chen filed a class-action lawsuit suit against Linyi in 2005. He was arrested a short time later and sent to jail for four years and three months, on charges of organizing a mob and “obstructing traffic.”
Villagers here said that despite Chen’s efforts, the Linyi government’s tough enforcement of the family-planning policy continues.
“Chen Guangcheng is a good man. He spoke for the people,” said the farmer in his 30s. The man said two children per family are tolerated in the region but “if people want a third, and they find you, they will definitely take you to the hospital to have an abortion.”
The man said that if a couple expecting a third child manages to flee the authorities, all their relatives will be arrested. He described how couples are forced to undergo sterilization after two children, with the government making the couple decide whether the man or the woman should have the operation.
“Other countries don’t have to do this. Why do we?” he asked.
Liu, the Jinan lawyer, called Linyi’s family planning policy “inhumane.”
“In other countries,” he said, “family planning is a human rights issue. Here, it’s government policy, and people don’t have the right to say no.”
Chen Guangcheng, interviewed Friday, said that the policy of forced abortions and sterilizations continues because no local officials have ever been disciplined for enforcing it, or told to stop.
“The responsible officials were not punished,” Chen said. “They got promoted instead. I think that’s why the family-planning control in Linyi is still so tight.”
Chen said he is still waiting for Beijing officials to open their promised inquiry into his treatment at the hands of Linyi officials.
“I worry, why hasn’t the central government started the investigation?” Chen said. “I’ll keep asking them to launch their investigation as soon as possible.”
Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.