Rights campaigners making another attempt to visit blind Shandong activist Chen Guangcheng said some of their number went incommunicado, presumed detained, on Wednesday, with one activist reporting being chased by armed guards before losing telephone contact.
The group, led by Henan-based activist Liu Shasha, set off from the eastern city of Xuzhou in an attempt to visit Chen, who has been held with his wife and small daughter at the family home in Shandong's Yinan county for more than a year since his release from prison.
"We used Xuzhou as our starting point," said fellow activist Miao Jue, who remained behind in the group's guest house to take care of their valuables. "There was Liu Shasha and [activists] from Shanghai, Hunan, and Zhengzhou: nine people altogether."
"They are very likely to be robbed, beaten, and then taken to the train station, or dumped in the middle of nowhere," she said.
Liu had sent a recorded message to Chinese netizens before the group left, Miao added.
"I call on all netizens to travel to Dongshigu village to visit Chen Guangcheng," the message said.
"We will not steal, nor rob, nor molest anyone. We will respect the law and the principles of nonviolence, not striking, nor retaliating: maintaining discipline," said the message.
The message was signed by Liu and fellow activists Liu Linna, Shi Yu, Tang Xiaohao, Geng Yong, Wu Yantao, and Chong Guoyuan, Miao said.
By 1:00 p.m. local time, one of the group, Zhu Wenli, said he had managed to slip past the dozens of guards surrounding Chen's home and sneak into the village.
However, he was spotted as soon as he approached the Chen family apartment, where the family has been held with no access to schooling for their daughter, little food, and no books, pen, or paper for several months.
"I am about 100 meters away from their home," a breathless Zhu told RFA's Mandarin service. "I was chased by a lot of men."
As he spoke, Liu and the rest of the group were heading for the village in two separate taxis.
Zhu said the fields around Chen's home were sown with sorghum and maize crops. "It makes good cover, but there's a strip of bare ground near their home, probably to keep people away."
About 10 days ago, Beijing-based activist Liu Shasha and several others traveled to Dongshigu village in the hope of visiting Chen and his family but were pounced on and beaten by around a dozen men guarding the main intersection of the village as soon as they got out of their vehicle.
Zhu said he had managed to conduct an audio interview with Chen's fellow villagers.
"Basically, no one in the village dares to say anything," he said. "One guy stuttered a few words out ... He was crying as he spoke ... It was pretty frightening."
"As they were chasing me, I heard them shouting '500 yuan!' I guess that's what they get paid for catching someone," Zhu said.
But just 20 minutes later, Zhu was in trouble.
"They are carrying something that looks a lot like a gun," he said, sounding breathless and terrified. "They have guns. They have guns," he said.
"I have to hang up now. I am hiding in the maize field, and I have to get away. Bye."
By 4:00 p.m., Liu Shasha told RFA she had lost touch with two of the group.
"We are waiting for the two of them in Linyi city," she said, referring to the city that administers Yinan county. "We can't get in touch with them right now. We are working out what to do next."
Zhu was still unreachable at the time of writing.
By 7:00 p.m. local time, Xuzhou-based Miao said she was unable to contact any of the group by cell phone.
"Before they set out we all agreed to maintain phone contact before we ran into [security] controls," she said. "This would prevent misunderstandings."
"I'm pretty sure they have been stopped on the way there," Miao said. "We will have to wait till tomorrow to find out if they were dumped in the countryside or taken to the train station."
Repeated calls to the Shuanghou police station duty desk and station chief went unanswered on Wednesday.
Miao said the group had received strong support from netizens via popular microblogging services like Sina Weibo, but that the authorities appeared to be closely monitoring the movement to help Chen.
"A lot of them wanted to come and join us, but they were 'invited for tea' [by state security police] before they could leave, and threatened, even beaten up," she said. "
"It was only some of the luckier ones who made it to Xuzhou."
Chen, 38, a self-taught lawyer who has persistently campaigned for women's rights issues under China's draconian family-planning regime, was jailed for four years and three months for “damaging public property and obstructing traffic” by the Linyi municipal court in August 2006.
Chen had exposed abuses like forced abortions and sterilizations by local family planning officials under China’s “One Child” policy.
He served the full jail term in spite of repeated requests for medical parole.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.