I travelled to Shandong Province last week to report on the story of Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer being held under extrajudicial house arrest. "House" is too narrow a term -- his entire village has been blocked off by plainclothes security.
On Thursday night, over dinner at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, I interviewed an activist named Wang Xuezhen.
Wang told me that the last time she'd tried to enter Chen's village, men put a bag put over her head and kicked her repeatedly. They also stole all of Wang's belongings.
She was headed to a police station the next morning to file a complaint and try to get her stuff back. I tagged along to see what would happen. At the station in Linyi, a city that has administrative oversight of Chen's village, Wang watched a group of men outside with concern.
She spoke with a police officer -- "my cell phone was smashed by unidentified people" -- took the paperwork her gave her and then pulled out a cell phone to make some calls.
She dialed her husband, a fellow activist and then a Chinese journalist to let them know what was happening.
“I don’t want to be beaten, I just want to get my things back," Wang said into her cell phone. At the end of it, an officer asked her to come back the next week.
Wang did return this week, to another police station closer to Chen's village. Peter Foster, a journalist from The Telegraph, was there and described what happened in a report published today:
"The policeman’s hand slapped the woman’s face with an audible crack. Standing only five feet tall in her trainers, barely the height of her assailant’s epaulettes, she took the blow without a cry ... Stumbling out of the police station and holding her stinging face, Miss Wang bitterly observed a truth about contemporary China: the country’s lawlessness begins with the law itself."
Later in the article, Foster explains that:
"Ironically, Miss Wang and two others had paid a visit to the local police station to ask for protection from the thugs who – just like the officer who struck her and removed the Velcro patch with his police number on – operate above the law, but apparently with its tacit support.
Their request was met with scorn.
'You are citizens of China, of course you are free to visit the village,' said the senior officer, who would not give his name, but did wear his ID number, 076970. 'If there are problems we will protect you, but we cannot protect you against imaginary difficulties.'
It was then that Miss Wang started to argue, retorting that the last time she came to Dongshigu, on September 21, a bag was put over her head before she was beaten and robbed and yet the police offered her no protection and refused to investigate her case. After firing a particularly strong insult at the officer, that slap suddenly rang out. But what would be grounds for an assault charge in Britain was brushed off as just another unavoidable knock."