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Visitors unwelcome in Chinese activist's hometown

CNN chased out of dissident's village

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Story highlights

  • A CNN team attempts to visit Chen Guangcheng's hometown of Dongshigu
  • The mention of Chen's name seems to provoke awkward and evasive reactions
  • Their driver fails to elude men following them in a car, finally gives up and abandons them
  • The team's attempt to question their followers ends in a scuffle -- and a retreat back to Beijing

As our car moved closer to this tiny village in eastern China, our driver became visibly nervous, looking around for any signs of trouble.

He found it. "They spotted us," he said, hitting the gas.

In the rear-view mirror, an unmarked black sedan appeared out of nowhere, trailing us as we drove past the main entrance to Dongshigu Village. That's the hometown of Chen Guangcheng, a prominent human rights activist whose escape here last week from house arrest has set off diplomatic reverberations worldwide.

Who is Chen?

Orange traffic cones blocked the narrow path off the main road; a half-dozen burly men stood guard with numerous vehicles parked behind them.

Despite the green trees and fields, the tight security around Dongshigu looked no different from what it looked like during the past two winters, when we previously had tried to enter the village.

In February and December of last year, we had come here to visit Chen after he recounted in a video posted online the abuse he and his family suffered during their confinement at the hands of local officials.

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Each time we were turned back at checkpoints, where plainclothes guards hurled rocks or or threw punches at us.

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Chen, 40, a blind and self-taught legal advocate for alleged forced-abortion victims, escaped last week after being imprisoned at home for more than 18 months. He is now believed to be in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, creating a burgeoning diplomatic dilemma between China and the United States that coincides with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She arrived Wednesday morning in Beijing.

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Chen's wife, mother and daughter, who were incarcerated with him but did not escape, have vanished from public view. In a video released online Friday, Chen expressed his deepening worry for the safety of his family.

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"They have been persecuting my family for a long time and my escape would only prompt them into a mode of revenge," he said.

We had come here again on Tuesday to find Chen's family -- but couldn't get close.

With the black sedan tailing us, our driver refused to slow down. He overtook trucks on the wrong side of the main road and raced through open-air markets on bumpy dirt paths.

We had hired him in a nearby town -- and it had taken a lot of cajoling to persuade him to take the job.

"It's too risky," he protested en route to Dongshigu. "I've heard of Chen Guangcheng -- he campaigned against the family-planning policy and was under house arrest."

"I don't know too much," he added quickly. "You should ask people from his town -- they know all about him."

After an hour's high-speed car chase, during which our driver failed to shake our tail, he decided he'd had enough. He dropped us off near a gas station, then he sped off as three policemen approached his car.

While waiting for a new car, we chatted with a trucker who had told us he was from Chen's town, but offered little news.

"Chen Guangcheng?" he asked, appearing uncomfortable hearing the name. "I spend a lot of time away and don't know much about what's going on here."

As we started driving in a new car, our tail resumed its close surveillance. This time, instead of trying to lose them, we decided to try to discover their intention.

We stopped at a roadside farmer's stall, where I bought a watermelon. Then, CNN's Stan Grant and I -- each of us carrying a slice of watermelon as a sort of peace offering -- approached the Volkswagen Passat carrying our pursuers as cameraman Brad Olson shot video of the scene that was unfolding.

The two men seated in the front of the car covered their faces with their hands and ignored my knocking on the driver's window.

I then knocked on the backseat passenger window. A man sporting a white shirt and sunglasses rolled down the tinted window slightly.

He refused to identify himself, but denied following us. "We were just driving around for fun," he said.

"Is this about Chen Guangcheng?" Stan asked in English and I translated.

"I don't know who Chen Guangcheng is," he replied.

"Do you want a slice of watermelon?" I offered.

"No." He looked awkward, rolling up the window.

As we walked away, someone yelled "Stop!" from behind. Turning around, we saw that all three men had gotten out of the car and were rushing toward us.

Scuffling ensued as they tried to grab Brad's camera from his hands. Amid the chaos, we broke free with our camera and jumped into our car.

One of the men picked up the watermelon I had bought and launched it at our car. With pink juice splashed across the rear window and the black car behind us again, we sped off toward the expressway back to Beijing -- wondering about Chen's escape and his family's fate.

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