An anonymous letter calling on the neighbors of blind Shandong activist Chen Guangcheng, currently under house arrest, to unite in his support has sparked fear of trouble among local people ahead of planned actions to mark his 40th birthday on Saturday.
"Nov. 12, 2011 is Chen Guangcheng's birthday," said the letter, which was sent to an unknown number of households in Chen's home county of Yinan this week. "There will continue to be large numbers of people trying to get through to visit him."
"We will not stand idly by and watch this happen," it said. "Unite in support of Chen Guangcheng!"
International rights groups have recently thrown their support behind an already vocal campaign to free Chen, his wife Yuan Weijing, and the couple's daughter Chen Kesi from house arrest.
According to the letter, around 100 people have tried to visit the family since January, with many reporting beatings and robbery at the hands of armed gangs guarding the village.
Activists are also calling for international pressure to be stepped up on Beijing to secure the family's release.
Repeated calls to a number of local residents went unanswered following the appearance of the letter.
Sympathy and fear
Shandong-based rights activist Wang Xuezhen said none of the villagers would now speak openly about Chen's case, in spite of widespread sympathy for his plight.
"They might say one or two things to an outsider if no one else was there, but as soon as another person is on the scene they will clam up entirely," Wang said.
"Their expressions change as soon as anyone mentions Dongshigu village, and they fall silent, or walk away."
Wang said that many villagers had burned the letter, titled "Telling the elders about their fellow countryman," as soon as they saw what it said.
"Local government propaganda has been telling them that there are enemy forces at work, which is why so many people have been set to guard a single man."
"They have previously said that Chen Guangcheng is a spy for the United States, so those people are very frightened, and they burned the letter as fast as they could."
Campaigners from all over China are planning to converge on Linyi city, which administers Yinan county, on Saturday in honor of his 40th birthday.
Villagers threatened, beaten
Nanjing-based rights activist He Peirong, known by her online nickname as @pearlher, said the letter came against a background of huge pressure for local people.
"The work teams are already in the village, and pretty much every household has received threats," she said.
"A lot of the villagers have been sentenced or beaten up because they helped Chen Guangcheng," He said. "It's horrifying."
In recent days, Chinese netizens and overseas campaigners have posted portraits of themselves wearing dark glasses on their blogs and microblogs in a show of solidarity with Chen and his family.
Chen, 39, a self-taught lawyer who campaigned for the rights of rural women under China's draconian family-planning regime, was handed a four-year, three-month jail term for “damaging public property and obstructing traffic” in August 2006.
Chen, Yuan, and Chen Kesi have been held in the family home and denied access to books, paper, or pens and electronic equipment, as well as being cut off from contact with the outside world.
Activists say the couple was severely beaten up earlier this year after they smuggled out a video that detailed their lives under house arrest.
Chen had exposed abuses like forced abortions and sterilizations by local family planning officials under China’s “One Child” policy, as well as official harassment and attacks on families who exceed local birth quotas.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.