Blind Activist Escapes House Arrest in China

Published: April 27, 2012

Supporters of Chen Guangcheng, via Associated Press
Chen Guangcheng, shown in an undated photograph, has been isolated since September 2010.

Supporters of Chen Guangcheng, via Associated Press
Chen Guangcheng, shown in an undated photograph, has been isolated since September 2010.
BEIJING — Chen Guangcheng, the blind rights lawyer who has been under extralegal house arrest in his rural village for the past 19 months, has escaped from his heavily guarded home and is in hiding in the capital, rights advocates and Chinese officials said on Friday.
American officials would not confirm reports that Mr. Chen has sought refuge in the American Embassy. A source in the Chinese Ministry of State Security said Mr. Chen was believed to be there on Friday. Previously, early Thursday evening, a Chinese analyst cited another State Security source who said that Mr. Chen had entered the embassy.

Those who have spoken to Mr. Chen say he slipped away from his captors on Sunday evening in Shandong Province, where he has been held incommunicado since his release from prison in September 2010. They said Mr. Chen was not seeking to leave China, but would try to negotiate his freedom with Chinese authorities.

“He is reluctant to go overseas and wants only to live like a normal Chinese citizen,” said Bob Fu, president of China Aid, a Christian rights organization based in Texas that had been in touch with him as recently as Friday morning.

The escape would represent a significant public relations challenge to the Chinese government, which has long sought to deny reports that local officials in Dongshigu village were keeping Mr. Chen and his wife locked in their home even though there are no legal charges against him.

The case could also present a major new challenge to the United States, which was thrust into another delicate internal political dispute in China in February. At that time, Wang Lijun, a senior police official from the region of Chongqing, sought refuge in the American consulate in Chengdu, revealing details about the killing of a British businessman and setting off a cascade of events that led to the downfall of Bo Xilai, who was a member of China’s Politburo.

American diplomats said they determined Mr. Wang’s case did not involve national security, and they turned him over to Chinese security officials, prompting criticism in Washington about their handling of the case.

But if Mr. Chen is now on the grounds of the embassy in Beijing, Obama administration officials are likely to be far more cautious in handling his case, given that he is one of China’s most internationally recognized dissidents and has been the subject of extralegal abuses in China for many years. In Washington, the White House and the State Department also declined to comment on whether Mr. Chen was at the embassy.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman on Friday said he had no information about the episode, but one Chinese intelligence officer expressed frustration and bewilderment that Mr. Chen had evaded his captors and that he might have entered the embassy.

“It’s still not clear how this happened,” the intelligence officer said. “Was this happenstance, or was it planned this way? Are there others planning to do the same?”

The timing is also especially inopportune given that Beijing is preparing to welcome Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and a host of other U.S. officials next week for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

It also creates headaches for Washington, which has been eager to build more constructive relations with the Chinese on a number of economic and security issues. Those efforts have lately paid dividends, with Beijing increasingly cooperative with American efforts to pressure Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs. China has also shown a willingness to support United Nations efforts to broker a cease-fire in Syria.

“This could be rather awkward,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

On Friday, shortly after news of Mr. Chen’s daring escape began circulating, a video appeared on YouTube, filmed in the days since he gained his freedom, in which he described life under house arrest. The video, in the form of an appeal to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, detailed the abuse he and his family suffered during their confinement and demanded that those responsible be brought to justice.

He told how his daughter was followed to school by three guards each day and how guards had kicked his wife for hours on end. “Prime Minister Wen, you owe the people an explanation,” he said. “Are these atrocities the result of local officials violating the law or a result of orders from the top leadership?”

It is not the first time that Mr. Chen has sought to publicize the details of his confinement. Last year, he and his wife were reportedly severely beaten after a video they secretly recorded inside their home was smuggled out of the village and posted on the Internet. Friends say the subsequent abuse by their captors had left Mr. Chen in frail health.

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