The fear is palpable and most people only dare whisper Chen Guangcheng’s (陳光誠) name in Dongshigu village amid the wheat fields where the blind activist was held under brutal house arrest.
The guards and cameras are gone, but residents remain terrified of local officials and the fellow farmers who meted out the mistreatment — and still live nearby. Even Chen’s mother says he should not come home.
“The government spent lots of money to watch the little blind one,” Liu Wencai, an elderly farmer, said as he walked down a village alley on Friday.
However, when asked about the hired enforcers, Liu said: “I cannot answer.”
Chen escaped six weeks ago and is now living in New York with his wife and two young children. The villagers he left behind do not want to talk about the brutality he and his family were subjected to during 19 months of house arrest.
A middle-aged man on a motorcycle refused to speak about the guards who once stood at the entrance to Dongshigu and chased outsiders away. He made a throat-slashing gesture before riding away — a warning that the topic of security remains taboo.
The edginess was in contrast to the lushness of early summer and the bucolic scene: Freshly harvested wheat lay in open spaces and women thrashed laundry by a river that borders this village of about 500 people about 600km southeast of Beijing.
Days ago, the security cameras, watchmen’s huts and even piles of garbage created by the surveillance squad were all rapidly cleared away, without explanation.
Chen’s relatives were able to host reporters for the first time in the nearly two years since the activist was released from a four-year prison term, only to be confined to his home.
His brother, Chen Guangfu (陳光福), showed reporters Chen’s rural courtyard home and his escape route: He clambered over 4m rock walls and tumbled into a neighbor’s pig sty, where he lay an entire afternoon before emerging under the cover of night.
He reached Beijing, where US diplomats arranged with the Chinese government for him to go to New York to study, along with his wife Yuan Weijing (袁偉靜), six-year-old daughter Chen Kesi (陳克斯) and 10-year-old son Chen Kerui (陳克睿).
The only remaining resident at his house in Dongshigu is his 78-year-old mother, Wang Jinxiang (王金香), who frets over what food Chen will find in the US and misses him terribly — but who says he should not come back.
“Come back for what?” she said. “He just spent all his time at home because they wouldn’t let him go out.”
On the road outside Chen’s home, three women told reporters they are happier now that the security guards are gone. However, they quickly dispersed when four local officials showed up and asked reporters to leave so as not to distract farmers during harvesting season.
“This village is very peaceful. Nothing happens here,” one of the officials said. “It needs a quiet environment to develop its economy.”
Chen’s family has said the enforcers came mostly from neighboring communities, including Xishigu and Xiaobu.
“They sold out their conscience for money,” his brother, Chen Guangfu (陳光), said. “It was a pretty good gig: 100 yuan per day and three free meals. Villagers cursed their ancestors, but they did not care.”
The dozen or so residents of Xishigu interviewed by reporters all denied that their fellow villagers worked to guard Chen Guangcheng.
In Xiaobu, the streets were deserted, but a local who refused to give his name referred vaguely to residents who worked as guards.
“They used to be farmers, and now of course they went back to farming,” he said. “They simply want to make money.”