For a blind man described by supporters as a "barefoot lawyer" for his work advising villagers fighting brutal population control measures in Shandong province, Chen Guangcheng has attracted the kind of official ire typically reserved for high-profile dissidents.
During a recent two-week detention in a village in the city of Linyi, authorities have set up roadblocks near his house and posted guards at the local railway station to prevent visitors from having any contact with Mr Chen.
According to a US lawyer, Jerome Cohen, teaching in Beijing, local authorities have placed 20 unmarked police vehicles around the village and 30 people surround Mr Chen's house.
"Chen is not permitted to show his face at the door to his courtyard," Mr Cohen said late last week.
The plight of Mr Chen has become a symbol not only of China's attempts to limit its population but of a larger problem for the country's leaders: how to rein in abuse of power by local officials, who will often go to great lengths to avoid external scrutiny.
The issue is sensitive for Beijing because of the anger such abuses cause in the US, especially among sections of Congress and powerful Christian constituencies.
Following complaints by Mr Chen and local villagers about forced abortions and sterilisations in the area, Beijing's family planning commission recently dismissed and arrested some officials around Linyi accused of carrying out a campaign to restrict births. China's central government sets stringent family planning goals for its localities in order to keep the number of births low, but provides only vague guidelines about how policies should be administered.
Mr Chen says officials in Linyi, a city of 10m, did not follow Beijing's guidelines and he was planning to lead a class-action lawsuit against the local government.
For his trouble, Mr Chen was kidnapped off the streets in Beijing in early last month by plain-clothed authorities. From Beijing he was taken back to Linyi.
People who know Mr Chen say he has long taken up causes for local villagers, such as unfair tax levies, and also defended the rights of disabled people around China. But his intention to take legal action over population control measures in Linyi appears to have been the last straw for local officials.
Mr Cohen, who has spoken to Mr Chen when the activist has managed to make phone calls, says he "sounded very desperate".
"The preferred outcome is the central government will wake up and call off the hound dogs down there," says Mr Cohen. "He's certainly not free and his family has been threatened."
Mr Chen and supporters have conducted hunger strikes in protest, say people close to the situation. The abuses in Linyi have drawn widespread attention from foreign publications, Chinese legal experts and even the US embassy. But the event has gone mostly unreported in the domestic press.
Some researchers estimate that, in the past six months as efforts to reduce births intensified, there are likely to have been several thousand sterilisations in just one region in Linyi alone.
"It's the worst thing we have in our files " says a foreign expert of the Linyi case.
Teng Biao, a young professor in Beijing who wrote a report on abuses there, says local officials beat villagers, held families of pregnant women hostage and forced villagers to undergo "family planning learning sessions".
In addition to local family planning officials, Mr Teng alleges a wide range of local government bodies around Linyi and hired assailants have been involved in brutal enforcement procedures.
"The most direct goal was to help villagers get legal help and make the government give them compensation," says Mr Teng of his report.
Despite the outcry and an investigation by the National Population and Family Planning Commission, questions are being raised over Beijing's commitment to eradicating abuses.
A person with ties to the NPFPC says local authorities knew about the violence in Linyi before July, when speculation about abuses began trickling out via domestic activists.
NPFPC officials did not respond to requests for comment. Several Shandong province and Linyi government offices -- including police and family planning departments -- either declined to comment or denied knowledge of abuses.
"It's none of your business," said one local family planning official.
Under syndication arrangement with FE