Nearly two months have passed since Chen Guangcheng, China’s 40-year-old blind human rights activist, left for the United States.
Even though reports of Chen’s daring escape from his tightly guarded home in Linyi in Shandong province gripped the globe, along with his taking refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, interest in his case seems to be waning.
This is particularly true in China.
It is not surprising given that the media here only reported that Chen went to study in the United States as many other citizens do, after spending a few days at the U.S. Embassy.
Those who only rely on newspapers or televisions for news may not have known that anything had happened to him.
But the latest case has left me with a bad aftertaste.
I have a sea of suspicions, particularly about the “watchmen” who used violence against Chen, when he was under house arrest in Dongshigu village, his family and the many foreign journalists who tried to enter the village.
Let me tell of my recent experience.
I left Shanghai Airport for Linyi on the morning of May 20. When I got off the airplane and entered the hall on the ground floor to pick up my baggage, two men and one woman pointed at me. The mens’ uniforms said in Chinese characters “security clearance,” which indicated they were airport employees or security guards.
“Will you show me your boarding pass?” a man asked me. I was the only person there asked to show my boarding pass.
He closely traced the English spelling of my name on the pass for a good 10 seconds and said, “Thank you,” nodding in satisfaction.
Soon, I would be tailed.
The place where I was asked to show my boarding pass was a restricted area, where members of the public were not allowed. I naturally suspected a connection between the airport authorities and my pursuers.
A black Toyota stayed in the rear view mirror of my car for the drive of about 70 kilometers, from the airport through Shandong's Dongshigu village.
For a while, we tried hard to give the slip to our pursuers by making sudden turns or driving down a narrow lane.
However, the stubborn guards kept tailing me.
We gave up trying to evade them and kept on driving toward Dongshigu village.
About several kilometers from the village, the vehicle overtook our car, apparently in a move to beat us to the village.
Passing through the single road with wheat fields spread on each side, we came to a narrow farm lane, leading to Dongshigu, when five to six men wearing straw hats and dark glasses came into sight, standing guard.
When our car was about to enter the lane, the men stood in front of it and surrounded us.
“Go back to the airport immediately,” one of them ordered my driver. “Otherwise, I don’t know what will happen to you.”
When I tried to get out of the car, the men firmly pushed the door closed. In an attempt to talk with the men, we drove dozens of meters farther.
When I finally got out so I could talk, the men rushed me. Three of them shoved me in the chest and grabbed my arms, and forced me back into the backseat of my car.
When I continued to try to get out, the men began kicking both sides of the car a number of times and striking the door with their fists.
I had not encountered such serious violence in this country. I kept taking pictures with my camera to document their brutality. However, the lens of my camera was broken from the violence of their attacks.
“What are you? Are you police officers or government officials?” I asked many times, only to get the “we are villagers” response.
A supporter of Chen Guangcheng earlier told me that about 120 people from other villages were employed for 100 yuan (1,200 yen, or $15.70) per day to keep watch over Chen and bar outsiders from entering. Most of them are relatives or acquaintances of the local government officials in charge of security.
With our car battered from their attack, we drove back on the road we came, stopping at a fruit stall and a gas station.
Each time, the men in the Toyota that had followed us rushed us again and forcibly pushed me back into our car.
They did not even allow me to use the bathroom.
Fearing for my safety since they were so bloodthirsty, I decided to report their assaults to a police station in another town. I felt the need to file a complaint about my broken camera lens.
“I have been physically abused by those men,” I told police at the station.
Their car turned around, instead of coming closer. The men did not get out of their car, either.
They were undoubtedly aware of their wrongdoing toward me.
A police officer did record the circumstances of my abuse, saying, “We will have to decide what to do about them, consulting with the person in charge.” But I have not heard from the police since.
A few hours later, two officials in charge of external affairs at the Linyi government office came and invited me to a late lunch.
At around 4 p.m. we ate at a nearby restaurant. While enjoying chicken and tofu dishes, they politely asked me what I was planning to do here.
After an hour or so, one of them started speaking Japanese.
It was surprisingly good.
He said he had lived in Kyushu for a few years. I did not know why he had not spoken Japanese from the start, but the man kept a calm tone during the lunch.
I threw out a question when I thought we had become comfortable with each other: “Why do the local government and police allow the watchmen’s violence, which is a criminal act?”
But the officials just pretended to smile.
One of them offered what seemed to be the official view: “Villagers may be defending themselves because they do not want outsiders in their village.”
I fired a follow-up question, “Do you really think so? If you keep allowing such abuse to happen when the world is watching, it won’t give a positive image of China, will it?”
The official replied, in a tone that ignored the reality. “We do not know what is actually happening in the village, either. It is not something we can do anything about.”
His words seemed to suggest that something was driving the situation with such great force that a local government could not possibly control it.
Meanwhile, the top official in charge of security and the police of Shandon province, where Chen had been under house arrest, was dismissed. The central government has given no official reason for Bai Jimin’s dismissal, but many believe he was forced to take responsibility for Chen's prolonged house arrest, which led to criticism from around the world.
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Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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