| DONGSHIGU VILLAGE, China
DONGSHIGU VILLAGE, China Residents in the northeastern Chinese village of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng are still too scared to be named, but they are opening their homes to foreign reporters - something that was impossible until only a week ago.
The dozens of surly guards and the surveillance cameras that kept watch on Chen's village have gone. The two guardhouses where his eldest brother, Chen Guangfu, said his sibling's supporters were beaten up, were last weekend reduced to rubble on the ground.
For 19 months, local officials in the village of Dongshigu in Shandong province turned Chen Guangcheng's home into a fortress of walls, cameras and guards, but from which he dramatically escaped in late April.
After breaking free from house arrest, Chen Guangcheng sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, embarrassing the Chinese authorities and sparking a diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Washington. He is now studying law in New York after China allowed him to go to the United States.
Despite the guards' departure, many villagers were too scared to talk. Chen Guangfu said they feared reprisals from local officials who had warned them that anyone seen supporting a "traitor" like Chen Guangcheng would also be tainted.
"It'll take a very long time for the shadow cast by this case to disappear because the villagers are scared to their hearts, to their bones," Chen Guangfu told Reuters on Saturday, speaking in his mother's home.
One ruddy-cheeked woman, who declined to give her name, said she was pleased the guards had left.
"When they were here, it was very troublesome," she said. "There's no interference now."
Despite this lightening of the atmosphere, local officials tailed Reuters reporters in the village. One of them was a man who was responsible for guarding Chen Guangcheng, according to Chen Guangfu.
Dongshigu, with a population of about 450, is surrounded by dirt roads and wheat fields being tilled.
A resident of Dongshigu who was wearing a blouse with green dots said the guards had all gone. But when asked what she thought about it, she said: "I dare not say."
VAST SECURITY RESOURCES
Chen Guangcheng, a self-schooled legal advocate who campaigned against forced abortions, had been held in his village home since September 2010 when he was released from jail for charges that he and his supporters said were spurious.
The extensive surveillance system in the village underscores the Communist Party's willingness to mobilise enormous resources to stifle the dissent and protest that it fears could challenge its power, rights activists say.
The central government was aware of the allegations of harsh treatment of Chen and his family because diplomats had raised his case several times, activists say. They believe the central government, under international pressure on its rights record, gives local officials a great degree of autonomy to stifle dissent - officials it can then claim acted without its permission.
Chen Guangfu said the removal of the guards may illustrate that Beijing has asserted its power over local officials, men he believes have come under pressure after his brother's escape.
"Perhaps the 'nation' of Dongshigu has surrendered to Beijing or Beijing won the war against Dongshigu," Chen Guangfu said. "The policies of the central government can finally be carried out here."
"In the past it was like 'the mountains were high and the emperor is far away', this was a place where the law could not reach," Chen Guangfu said.
Chen Guangcheng has repeatedly urged Beijing to investigate the rights abuses he says he and his family have had inflicted upon them unlawfully.
Until very recently no reporters, nor any of Chen Guangcheng's backers, including "Batman" star Christian Bale, have been able to visit Dongshigu without being blocked by men in plain clothes. Many who did make the trip were beaten.
A bespectacled man in a blue short-sleeved shirt, who identified himself as the First Secretary of the village told Reuters reporters to leave.
"There's nothing happening here, everything is peaceful," he said. "Please go now for the peace of the village."
Chen's family members describe a relentless effort to deprive him of liberty and peace. Aside from keeping him in his home, guards pinned up a metal sheet outside Chen Guangcheng's bedroom window and repeatedly bashed it with a stick.
"When the ordinary people asked them what they were doing, they said: 'This is a task that the leaders told us to do'," Chen Guangfu said.
All the guards left behind are their poker cards, strewn across the dusty courtyard.
Officials told Chen Guangcheng they estimated well over 60 million yuan ($9.5 million) had been spent to keep him penned up, the activist said in a video released after his escape.
Every day for the past one and a half years, three guards would tail Wang Jinxiang, Chen Guangcheng's mother, from her home to the market, Wang said. Six of them would sit in the courtyard outside her house, while four surveillance cameras monitored all motion.
Wang wept when she recalled how dozens of guards forcefully prevented Chen Guangcheng from paying his last respects to his second brother, Chen Guanghui, who died in January as a result of an illness.
Wang, a wrinkled and gap-toothed woman of 78, said she found out that her son had escaped only after she returned home on April 20.
"If he didn't run away, he would have died of persecution," she said.
(Additional reporting by Royston Chan; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)