Amid the scuffling and yelling, dozens more guards in olive-green, military-style overcoats – and two gray minivans – emerged from the other side of the checkpoint, all coming toward us.
“Why can I not visit this free man?” Bale asked repeatedly, only to receive punches from guards aiming for his small camera as they tried to drag him away from the rest of us.
As we retreated, I recognized the ringleader – the same burly man who had hurled rocks at the CNN team 10 months earlier to force us out of the same location.
A precarious scene ensued Thursday as one of the gray minivans chased our car at high speed on bumpy country roads for some 40 minutes.
When the dust settled, we counted a broken car, a damaged camera – and a Hollywood star disappointed at – but not shocked by – his failure to see a personal hero.
“What I really wanted to do was to meet the man, shake his hand and say what an inspiration he is,” Bale said.
The man, 40-year-old Chen Guangcheng, has been confined to his home along with his wife, mother and daughter, and watched around the clock by dozens of guards since he was released from prison in September 2010. A local court had sentenced him to more than four years in prison for damaging property and disrupting traffic in a protest.
His supporters maintain authorities used trumped-up charges to silence Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer who rose to fame in the late 1990s thanks to his legal advocacy for what he called victims of abusive practices by China’s family-planning officials.
Bale first learned about Chen through news reports, including our coverage in February, when he was in China filming “The Flowers of War,” a wartime drama set in 1930s Nanjing in which he plays a mortician trying to save a group of schoolgirls from the clutches invading Japanese soldiers.
The injustice faced by the activist and his family stirred such strong emotions in Bale that, upon hearing his impending return to China to promote the movie, he decided to do something unusual to raise the international awareness of Chen and thereby to turn up the heat on the Chinese government.
“This doesn’t come naturally to me, this is not what I actually enjoy – it isn’t about me,” he explained during our eight-hour drive from Beijing to the eastern city of Linyi, where Chen’s village is located. “But this was just a situation that said I can’t look the other way.”
Known to be a media-shy celebrity, Bale reached out to CNN and invited us to join him on his journey to visit Chen.
In the car, he lamented the American public’s lack of knowledge on Chen’s case, despite senior U.S. officials’ increasingly vocal support for his freedom. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gary Locke, the American ambassador to China, have both championed Chen’s cause.
Bale appeared a little surprised to learn that Relativity Media, which produced his 2010 Oscar-winning “The Fighter” and recently filmed a comedy in Linyi, was accused by activists of cozying up to the same officials who ordered Chen’s detention and torture. The studio has issued a statement denying the allegation.
Although China’s state media has largely ignored the story, Chen’s plight has spread online and outraged a growing number of Chinese “netizens.” Many have tried to visit Chen, and activists say nearly all would-be visitors have been turned back, often violently, by plainclothes police and local thugs.
“I’m not brave doing this,” Bale emphasized. “The local people who are standing up to the authorities, who are visiting Chen and his family and getting beaten or detained, I want to support them.”
As our car sped toward Beijing in the dark, Bale wondered aloud if he would never be allowed back – a prospect he is prepared to accept – even as “The Flowers of War” became China’s official entry into next year’s Academy Awards.
“Really, what else can I do to help Chen?” he kept asking as the clock struck midnight, with his latest movie – partially funded by the state – about to open nationwide in China.