DONGSHIGU, China (Reuters) - The Chinese village that blind dissident Chen Guangcheng fled two weeks ago remained under lockdown on Friday as Chen, recovering in a Beijing hospital, worried about the fate of friends and family he left behind.
Guards chased away two Reuters reporters who attempted to enter Dongshigu village, in northeast Shandong province, on Friday afternoon. The four heavy-set guards ran slowly, yelling at the reporters as their car drove away.
Chen, a self-taught legal activist, has triggered a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States after he staged a dramatic escape from house arrest and travelled to the U.S. embassy in the capital where he took refuge for six days.
He left the embassy on Wednesday after Chinese assurances that he and his family would receive better treatment and that Beijing would investigate his treatment by Shandong officials. But he almost immediately changed his mind after hearing that his family and friends had been badly treated since his escape.
“Don’t go, they’re still there and inside where you can’t see them. They will beat you up,” said a woman shopkeeper on the road approaching the town.
The village, set among fields of maize and near a river close to Linyi city, remained sealed off by a band of guards whom Chen has claimed were hired by local officials.
Reuters journalists approaching the village encountered a guard with a crew-cut carrying a walkie-talkie and a pager.
“We have an understanding - leave now,” said the guard, eating an ice cream cone and carrying a bag of steamed buns. Shortly after, the other guards appeared to chase the car away.
Chen spent 19 months confined to his home in Dongshigu before escaping on April 22, when he tricked his guards into thinking he was sick and confined to bed. The dissident, who lost his sight as a child, scaled several walls and eluded surveillance cameras and dozens of guards before meeting up with supporters who drove him to Beijing.
China has now indicated it may allow Chen to leave the country to study, and the United States said he has been offered a university fellowship.
“It’s not fair what they’re doing to him,” said one resident of a nearby village. “Whether or not he goes to the U.S. isn’t so important. I just hope he can find some freedom and be treated fairly.”
Chen became a thorn in the side of China’s ruling Communist Party after he campaigned against forced abortions used to implement the one-child policy and was jailed for four years until 2010 on charges he rejected as spurious.
Dongshigu is surrounded by dirt roads, rolling fields that are half tilled and muddy river embankments - extremely challenging terrain for a blind man on the run.
Villagers were reluctant to speak to Reuters journalists, though some said they knew of Chen and his escape. One woman from nearby Xishigu village, giving her name only as Liu, said the guards surrounding Dongshigu were angry.
“We knew he was here but never saw him because they never let him out of the house,” said Liu. “They’re very angry now.”
In the last months of Chen’s detention, several of his friends and allies tried to visit the village, and several were badly beaten. In December, Hollywood actor and “Batman” star Christian Bale was roughed up as he tried to pay Chen a visit.
Chen and his wife endured a brutal, four-hour beating by local authorities in July last year, according to the U.S. advocacy group ChinaAid.
However, China has denied that Chen was ever under house arrest in his village. A foreign ministry spokesman said this week that after Chen fulfilled his jail sentence, he was a “free citizen” who stayed in his village of his own accord.
Speaking by phone from his Beijing hospital bed on Thursday, Chen said he worried about the fate of his family and supporters back in the village. Though his wife and two small children were reunited with him in the Beijing hospital, his mother and other relatives remained in Dongshigu.
He said villagers who had helped him were “receiving retribution” and he was most concerned about the safety of his mother and brothers, he told Bob Fu, the president of U.S.-based religious and human rights organization ChinaAid, who has kept in regular phone contact with the dissident.
“I’m really scared for my other family members’ lives,” Chen said. “They have installed seven video cameras and are in my house.”
Writing by Don Durfee and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie