Four days after the blind activist Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠) made his audacious bid for freedom, dropping over a wall under cover of darkness and limping away on an injured leg, his nephew also made a desperate escape through fields of peanut and sweet potato plants.
Friends say the older man reached the safety of the US embassy in Beijing, but when last heard from on Sunday night, his nephew, Chen Kegui (陳克貴), was on the run — penniless, frightened, struggling for breath and hiding from a black car he feared was following him.
The 33-year-old’s flight is the most potent reminder that his uncle’s incredible escape from 19 months of house arrest has come at a bitter cost.
On Monday, the EU urged China to avoid harassing the activist’s family and associates.
However, many are already in the hands of furious officials; Chen Kegui fled after lashing out with a knife at men who had broken into his home and detained his father. Shortly afterwards, two police officers marched his mother away from the hospital where she was caring for his sick child.
Chen Kegui’s wife is now too frightened to reveal her location.
“She’s afraid she will be next and the whole family will be taken away. She’s terrified,” said lawyer Liu Weiguo (劉衛國), whom she hired before she left.
The family lived just a few hundred meters away from Chen Guangcheng, in the village of Dongshigu in Shandong Province, but the family members had not seen each other for more than a year thanks to the state of siege in which the activist lived following his release from jail in 2010.
His wife, Yuan Weijing (袁偉靜), their six-year-old daughter and his mother are thought to remain under the watch of up to 100 hired guards — armed with high-tech surveillance and phone-jamming equipment — who have beaten, threatened or harassed supporters, journalists and even diplomats trying to visit. They are said to have broken Yuan’s bones in one beating last year.
On Monday, only two men stood by the roadside as reporters approached, but within moments two more had emerged to block the path; and one knocked on the window of a parked van to summon sleepy reinforcements.
The leader, a burly man in a badly fitting brown suit jacket, quickly made a telephone call.
“We are afraid of thieves. We don’t want anything stolen,” he said, when asked why visitors could not enter, pushing us back towards the highway.
Asked whether Chen’s family were still in the village, he insisted he did not know.
“Go! Go!” said a bespectacled man in camouflage, pointing toward the road.
As we drove away, the leader of the group snapped our number plate with his phone. A silver car tailed reporters out of the area.
Two more of Chen Guangcheng’s relatives from Dongshigu — his cousin and his cousin’s son — have also been detained, human rights activists say.
Perhaps the most immediate cause for concern is Chen Kegui. Hours after the incident he told blogger Cao Yaxue (曹雅雪) that a group of men — armed with wooden clubs and led by a local official — had broken in at around midnight on Thursday after realizing his uncle had escaped.
Sobbing as he spoke, Chen Kegui described how he had grabbed kitchen knives to use for self-defense and slashed at the intruders as they tried to grab him.
It is unclear how badly the men were injured.
“In China, law is trampled over at will. I love my motherland, but this is what she gives me,” Chen Kegui told Cao.