Blind activist a touchstone of freedom
They know taking a trip to Dongshigu village is a dangerous mission. But that hasn't stopped scores of supporters of Chen Guangcheng from trying to visit the blind legal activist at his home in Shandong province in the past couple of months.
None have managed to see him. Before they get anywhere near Chen (pictured), they are detained, or beaten or roughed up by unidentified men. Others are robbed, hooded and bundled into cars and dumped in the middle of nowhere.
But some have returned, again and again.
Activists estimate that between 70 and 100 people have tried to visit Chen in the past couple of months - most just ordinary citizens, but among them journalists and writers including famous ones like Murong Xuecun and Wang Xiaoshan.
Most say they are driven by a sense of injustice and moral outrage that a self-taught lawyer who blew the whistle on forced sterilisations and abortions should be treated so inhumanely after spending more than four years in jail on trumped-up charges. Chen, his wife and six-year-old daughter have been confined at their house and kept incommunicado since his release from jail in September last year.
Activist He Peirong, who has been roughed up during five visits over the past year, described her determination as 'a battle of wills' with the local authorities.
'I want to show that Chen Guangcheng has not been forgotten and he is not alone,' she said. 'His lack of freedom represents everyone's lack of freedom and what is happening to him could happen to any of us.'
Quoting village sources, she said Chen and his wife Yuan Weijing were severely beaten by local officials for four hours in late July - in front of their young daughter. Officials were angered that Chen managed to make several mobile phone calls after the network blocking devices they installed outside his home were damaged by rainstorms, she said.
Former Xinhua journalist Shi Yu , who tried to visit Chen earlier this month, said he was 'filled with fear' when he was hooded and bundled into a car, before being dragged into a room and repeatedly beaten.
Shi, who was detained for nearly 20 hours, resigned from his job under pressure after his ordeal was publicised.
'Chen and his family are putting up with a lot more than us,' he said.
So keen were supporters of Chen to push their campaign that some even posted online directions to Chen's village and tips on how to deal with local officials.
Even state media has broken the silence on Chen, whose name has been taboo since his arrest in 2004. An editorial in the Global Times' Chinese edition on October 12 chided Shandong authorities over their handling of Chen, marking a rare breach in the country's silence over the detention of rights activists. The paper, owned by the People's Daily, said the local authorities should state publicly the legality of Chen's confinement.
The next day, the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post published an article entitled 'Who is Chen Guangcheng?', criticising the Global Times for its nebulous position on the legality of Chen's house arrest, and said the mainland media, which reported widely on Chen before he was imprisoned, should objectively explain to the public who Chen is. Human Rights Watch's senior researcher Nicholas Bequelin said support for Chen showed that 'rights activists in China will not give up the fight ... they hope to expose the flagrant illegality of the measures imposed on Chen'.