Surreal Sunday in Beijing

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Austin Ramzy / Time

This is a follow up on my previous post about the travails of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng and his wife, Yuan Weijing. You may recall that Yuan fled her home in rural Shandong Province to travel to Beijing. She hoped to meet a U.S. embassy official and international journalists in an attempt to publicize her husband’s plight.

On Sunday, a colleague and I went to visit Chen’s wife, who has been holed up in a friend’s apartment since she arrived in the capital on July 6 because of fears she might be kidnapped by policemen from her province and taken back to Shandong. As this is exactly what happened to her husband two years ago (right after meeting with a TIME reporter, which wasn’t a good omen), it isn’t an unreasonable fear. Yuan’s hosts, activist Hu Jia and his wife Zeng Jingyan, had warned us that there were three carloads of police outside the gates of their compound and that some diplomats who had visited earlier weren’t allowed to enter. We were pretty confident we would be let in, though. The new “Olympic” rules allowing foreign journalists to interview anyone so long as they give their consent have been in effect for seven months now, and the police are well briefed on them, at least in Beijing.

The only visible guard was a plump, polite fellow in a striped polo shirt and shiny brown patent leather shoes. He told us he was a policeman (initially in English, sort of) and then proceeded to laboriously record the details of our journalist IDs. He also asked when our appointment was and even smiled sheepishly when I told him and added that he probably knew that already.

In Hu Jia’s fourth floor walk up apartment we were introduced to Yuan, who was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of her husband. She explained that she had decided to come up to Beijing after seeing Chen in jail four days after he was beaten. He still had bruises all over his body and couldn’t walk upright because of blows he had received to his side, she said. Yuan described how he had refused to allow his head to be clean shaven. “He didn’t mind having it cut short but a totally shaved head is a sign of a criminal. ‘I am not a criminal, I am a Chinese worker,” he told them.” His defiance seemed to have angered someone in authority and some six or seven other convicts jumped him and beat him. Then he was pushed to the ground, his hands manacled behind his back, and held down while his head was shaved. Yuan said the prison authorities later told her that they had conducted a medical exam on Chen and there was no evidence of his having been beaten. They also told her that in fact, he had attacked a fellow prisoner, not the other way round. Such denial of what she had seen so clearly alarmed her. Yuan said she was worried that he might be beaten again or be subjected to other punishments, hence her trip to Beijing. She said she was trying to make her case that, as he is incapable of looking after himself because of his blindness, he ought to be freed to serve out his term at home as is specified under Chinese law. Right now, Yuan is waiting until the 18th, when Chen’s mother and brother will seek to visit him in jail (the family is allowed to visit once a month but the authorities have been threatening to suspend visitation rights because of the have been getting from the foreign media about Chen’s condition). If he hasn’t suffered any further problems, Yuan says she’ll go home to Shandong. Otherwise, she’ll try and get his story out again, though it’s not clear exactly how she plans to do that.

“There are other people in jail but Chen’s case is very unusual because he is blind and it is so clear he is in jail unjustly,” Yuan said. She’s right of course. What makes Chen’s case so odd is that Beijing could make most of the controversy around it go away by doing what she’s asking. He’d still be confined to his house and unable to organize or agitate or probably even talk to the media. But so long as he is in prison and getting beaten, a helpless blind man who did nothing more than try and help a group of women who were being forced to undergo sterilization by overzealous family planning officials, it’s a story that will continue to draw attention from reporters.
We drank tea and talked. Yuan’s daughter came out to play. Some guys arrived to install an extra bed. Then we left with all the usual polite exchanges. It was all very normal and slightly surreal to think that if she ventured a few meters out the door of the apartment block she would be bundled into a white van they had spotted earlier and driven back to Shandong. On the way out, the policeman, who had found himself a folding chair and was slumped in it, belly bulging, waved to us and called out a cheery, “bye bye.”