The dissident’s residence
By David Gray
Blind Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng grabbed the world’s attention in April when he refused to leave the U.S. embassy in Beijing after escaping from his village where he was under home detention. The end result was that he and his wife were put on a plane to New York. Over the next few weeks, the Chen family that still lived in the family home were subjected to beatings and house raids by local plainclothes security personnel. During one of these raids, Chen’s nephew tried to stop the invaders, and as a result is in detention for attempted murder – a crime that carries the death penalty in China.
Just three weeks ago I photographed Guangcheng’s elder brother, Chen Guangfu, who had managed to slip out of the same village as his brother in an attempt to obtain a good lawyer for his son’s case. As I was photographing Guangfu he recounted the beating he had suffered as retaliation for his brother’s escape. He said he no longer has any feeling in his left hand. When the interview finished I thought I would probably never see this brave man again but when we received word it might be possible to visit his village, we headed straight there.
Myself, Royston Chan of Reuters Television, and text correspondent Sui-Lee Wee, boarded planes and flew to Shinyi in Shandong Province, some 600 kilometers (372 miles) southwest of Beijing. A driver was waiting for us when we landed; a good contact as a result of Royston’s previous attempts to visit the village. We drove the 70 kilometers (43 miles) or so to Dongshigu village. As we approached the turn-off, we had our cameras ready and drove past to determine what we would do next.
“Did you see anyone?” all three of us said at once. We had not, so we turned around and slowly made our way down the road. Just short of the village, we saw some farmers harvesting their wheat crops. We pulled over and asked them where the Chen family home was located. “Wo bu zhi dao” (“I do not know”) they barked back at us, seemingly very agitated that anyone would even ask them. We moved on slowly through the village and every time the same answer came back to us. Of course, something was very wrong if a village that has a population of just 500 did not know where the house of a blind lawyer who had been arrested, put in jail, released, held under house arrest, beaten, escaped on foot, caused a massive diplomatic scandal upon entering the U.S. embassy in Beijing, and who was now living in New York was.
So, we walked the small alleyways that made up the village, and finally got a hold of Chen’s brother Guangfu on the phone. By this stage, we were really worried about who we would encounter around the next corner. Previous visits by journalists trying to enter the village had resulted in them being physically removed and being driven directly to the closest airport. Some had even had their equipment damaged beyond repair. Guangfu arrived on a bike, smiling and very happy to see us. We walked with him to the family home, just five minutes away, and discovered of course that it was at the exact spot where we had first asked someone after entering the village. Guangfu said he was certain that all the villagers had been told not to talk to any foreigners, because normally they would all be out of their homes watching them.
We entered the gate to the Chen family home and met Wang Jinxiang, the mother of Guangfu and Guangcheng. This sweet lady greeted us with open arms and we quickly started the interview. It didn’t take long for her to begin crying as she recounted the many sleepless nights over the past years.
She said the guards would deliberately keep them awake by banging on a metal sheet sporadically throughout the night. Next we visited Guangcheng’s room just a few meters away. It had been ransacked by the guards after his escape, and his mother had cleaned it up the best she could. As I walked around, I noticed an old photograph sitting in a drawer, of him at a blind institute in Texas some years previously. What grabbed me about the photograph was the beaming smile on his face, and how out of place it seemed in this small and damaged room.
We nervously got as many shots as we could of the home, thinking we might not ever be able to come back. As we were about to leave, Guangfu pointed to a row of rocky steps that led up to the roof of a shed. He said these steps were the ones his blind brother had managed to climb, by himself, and jump over numerous walls to escape. This was truly remarkable, as some of the walls were over 6 feet-high.
By this time we had not been approached by any officials, either inside the house or in the surrounding alleys. Finally, a goofy-looking man dressed exactly like an official would be (with long dress pants and a collared shirt, in the middle of a farming village) approached us and asked where we were from. We told him we were from Beijing and we were doing interviews – would he care to comment? There was “No need” he replied, “As you can see, all is fine here.”
We said our goodbyes and as soon as we left we were followed by some men in a van. We flagged down a passing taxi, which was a truly miraculous event (I can’t even get a taxi to stop for me in the middle of Beijing) and jumped in. “To the airport as quick as you can, driver,” and with this, he drove at such high speed that either the van lost us or they just gave up.
We sent our pictures, video and story from the terminal building as we waited for our flight. Covering stories like this always involves being alert and aware of who is watching. You need to make sure that when the time comes to leave, you can leave quickly. It’s just another day at the office in China.
(This story was corrected on June 14 to correct the name of Chen Guangcheng’s brother to Guangfu)