On April 22, Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese legal activist named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in 2006, escaped from detention in eastern Shandong province, according to He Peirong, an online advocate who has followed Chen’s case for several years. He, an English teacher who was galvanized by Chen’s plight to engage in human-rights campaigning, said that Chen contacted her after his escape from his village house, which has been heavily guarded by local security personnel for years. In a post on Chinese microblog site Sina Weibo on the evening of April 26, He said that after Chen called her, she drove a car to Shandong to pick him up and “hid him in a safe place.”
By the morning of April 27, rumors floated online that Chen — who has been jailed, beaten and harassed for years because of his legal activism on behalf of women who were forced to abort late-term fetuses that were seen as contravening local family-planning regulations — had sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. A day later, ChinaAid, a U.S.-based rights group that for years has been advocating on behalf of one of China’s best-known activists, released a statement saying that it had “learned from a source close to the Chen Guangcheng situation that Chen is under U.S. protection and high level talks are currently under way between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen’s status.” ChinaAid President Bob Fu, a Christian activist who suffered persecution in his native country, said: “This is a pivotal moment for U.S. human rights diplomacy. Because of Chen’s wide popularity, the Obama Administration must stand firmly with him or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law. If there is a reason why Chinese dissidents revere the U.S., it is for a moment like this.” The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has refused to comment on the matter. However, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has in the past publicly urged the Chinese government to stop its persecution of Chen. She will be in Beijing next week for economic talks between the two nations.
This isn’t the first time a high-profile Chinese has sought American protection, complicating relations between the two powers. In February, Wang Lijun, a lieutenant of disgraced Chongqing chief Bo Xilai, made a mad dash to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, where he holed up for 24 hours and leaked incriminating information about his former boss to American diplomats. The former Chongqing police chief, who has been linked with torture and organ-transplantation, then left U.S. custody of his own accord, according to both American and Chinese statements. Back in 1989, as Beijing was still reeling from the bloodshed of the Tiananmen tragedy and pro-democracy protesters were being rounded up by security forces, Fang Lizhi, a democracy activist and astrophysicist who was often dubbed a Chinese Sakharov, fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He stayed there for more than a year before being allowed to leave China. He died this month in exile in Arizona at age 76.
In 2005, I met Chen Guangcheng, then a barely known, self-taught legal activist, for a story I was writing on his advocacy on behalf of women who had been forced to undergo abortions or sterilizations by officials in Shandong’s Linyi city. Such local punitive measures in fact contravened national regulations on the application of China’s so-called one-child policy, but officials in Linyi were worried that their promotions would be compromised because of a high number of extra births in their region. With Chen’s help, I met several local women from Linyi, including one who said local doctors strapped her down and shoved a poison-filled needle into her abdomen two days before her due date, killing the baby. “Someone has to fight for people with no voice,” Chen told me. “I guess that person is me.”
But just a few hours after our last meeting in Beijing in 2005, local security from Shandong showed up in the Chinese capital, hustled Chen into an unmarked vehicle and took him back home. Since then, he has been in detention, either in jail or under house arrest, along with his wife and child. In 2006, he was sentenced to more than four years in jail on seemingly trumped-up charges of “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.” Upon his release, Chen was forced into house arrest, along with his wife and daughter. At times, dozens of security officials and local thugs have guarded his home, which remains inaccessible to visiting advocates and local and foreign media.
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During one of our meetings in Shanghai and Beijing, Chen described how he had evaded local security who were already guarding his home and trying to prevent him from leaving in the late summer of 2005. Because he was blind, he said, he decided to escape at night when those guarding him would be at a disadvantage. Sneaking into a nearby cornfield with a family member, he began throwing gravel in different directions to confuse the security personnel who were trying to follow him. “The night gives me an advantage,” Chen said. “I can navigate better than people with sight can.” After walking for kilometers and meeting up with a friend, Chen was able to drive to safety and eventually turn up in Shanghai and later Beijing, where he tried to meet with national family-planning officials to tell them about the abuses in Linyi.
On Friday afternoon, a 15-minute video was uploaded on YouTube, which is blocked in China, showing Chen in an undisclosed location, reportedly after he fled house arrest. “I’m here to confirm that everything on the Internet and the accusation about Linyi’s atrocities committed against me are all true,” he said. “What actually happened was worse than what people have talked about online.” In the video, Chen went on to directly ask China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, who has emerged as a relatively reformist voice within the country’s central leadership, to personally intervene in his case. Describing the multiple beatings he and his wife sustained, Chen demanded: “You have to find out and punish the person according to the law. Matters like this are too detrimental to the Communist Party’s image.” The blind advocate, who was filmed wearing aviator sunglasses, also listed the names of some of the local officials he accused of persecuting him and his family. Finally, he pleaded on behalf of his relatives who are still back in Linyi’s Dongshigu village. “Even though I managed to escape, my family are still in their hands,” he said. “My family may face crazy revenge from them. I’m asking the Chinese government to secure the security of my family. If anything happens to them, I will never give up on pursuing whoever is responsible.”
Human Rights in China (HRIC), a New York City–based NGO, published a statement on Friday based on a conversation with his nephew Chen Kegui, whose house is just 200 m away from Chen Guangcheng’s. The nephew told HRIC that on April 26, his mother heard one of the guards stationed at the detained legal activist’s residence saying, “Chen Guangcheng is no longer here.” The same day the nephew reported that his father and another of the activist’s brothers were taken away from his house by local authorities. Early on April 27, Chen Kegui told HRIC that local security forces again entered his home and he fought back using kitchen knives before fleeing the area.
The ongoing drama surrounding Chen Guangcheng’s whereabouts has catalyzed China’s online community of human-right sympathizers. “For Chen personally, it’s a good thing because he gained his freedom again,” an entrepreneur surnamed Liu, who heard about Chen’s case and decided to engage in activism on his behalf, said by phone. “But I’m not satisfied that there has been any resolution in his case, because he has suffered so many insults for such a long time and no one has been punished for what they did to him.” Last October, Liu joined a dozen or so other Chinese online campaigners who traveled to Chen’s village to try to meet him. They say that local thugs robbed them and beat them. Last year, when Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to do the same thing, amid the glare of trailing CNN cameras, he was also brusquely escorted out of the region.
Meanwhile, online activist He appears to have been taken away by security personnel in Nanjing, where she lives. Her main Weibo account has been shut down by Chinese authorities. A call to one of her mobile numbers was answered by a man who curtly said, “Wrong number,” before hanging up. He’s second-to-last message on Twitter, which is blocked in China but accessible to those using a VPN, was posted early on Friday morning, saying those sympathetic to Chen’s case should drive to Shandong and head to State Route 205 because his nephew Chen Kegui was somewhere on that road trying to escape. “Please offer necessary help to him,” she wrote. “I cannot set out anymore or else I would drive there myself.”
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing
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