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.