BEIJING — A blind legal activist fled house arrest in his rural China village and made it to a secret location in Beijing, setting off a frantic police search for him and those who helped him, activists said.
U.S. officials would not comment on unconfirmed reports Chen Guangcheng had sought protection at the U.S. Embassy — a delicate prospect as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top officials visit China next week for the latest round of the two powers’ Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
Activists described an improbable escape, saying Chen slipped away from his intensely guarded home on Sunday night, was driven away by activists and then handed over to others who brought him to Beijing.
Chen also recorded a video as a direct address to Premier Wen Jiabao, condemning the treatment of him and his family and accusing local Communist Party officials by name. Activists sent the video Friday to the overseas Chinese news site Boxun.com, which posted part of it on YouTube.
Activist Hu Jia met with Chen after his escape and said the people with Chen later called him. "They said, ‘He is in a 100 percent safe place,’" Hu said. "If they say that, I know where that place is. There’s only one 100 percent (safe) place in China, and that’s the U.S. Embassy." Claims of Chen’s location could not be verified.
Hu’s wife, Zeng Jinyan, posted a photo Friday on Twitter of Chen and Hu together. Chen is wearing the same clothes he wore in the video. Both men are smiling.
Chen’s escape, if ultimately successful, would boost a beleaguered civil rights community, which has faced rising arrests and other harassment over the past year.
But Chen’s flight unleashed a police crackdown on his relatives and the people who helped him flee, activists said.
"I am now free. But my worries have not ended yet," Chen said in his video. Speaking to a camera in a room with an off-white curtain drawn behind him, he said, "My escape might ignite a violent revenge against my family."
A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials confined him to his home, despite the lack of legal grounds for doing so, beating him up on several occasions.
Chen was widely admired by rights activists at home who — led by blogger He Peirong — last year campaigned to publicize his case among ordinary Chinese and encourage them to go to Dongshigu village and break the security cordon. Even Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to visit, but as with many others he was roughed up by locals paid to keep outsiders away.
Why activists spirited Chen to Beijing was not immediately known.
Though China’s most policed city, Beijing is home to foreign embassies that could provide asylum. Chen’s mistreatment has often seemed to be a vendetta by local officials, and perhaps Chen and his helpers thought a direct appeal to the central leadership would help.
Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai told a briefing Saturday on next week’s talks with the United States that he had no information on Chen’s case.
The escape threatens to unleash a new wave of negative publicity for the authoritarian government when top leaders are already dealing with the fallout from the toppling of a former powerful politician, cashiered amid allegations of corruption, murder and abuse of power.
Online rumors and unconfirmed reports said Chen had sought protection at the U.S. or another foreign embassy. The U.S. Embassy and State Department declined comment on those reports and on Chen’s current status. "We have expressed concern in the past about this case. I don’t have anything current about this issue today," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing in Washington.
Government officials and police in Chen’s hometown either refused comment or did not answer telephone calls Saturday.
Amnesty International and other human rights groups called on the Chinese government to ensure the safety of Chen and his family, saying they had been abused during 18 months of illegal house arrest.
Police detained He, the blogger, who told The Associated Press that she had driven Chen from Dongshigu village out of Shandong province on the night of May 22 to "a relatively safe place." She handed him to another activist, who on Friday called Bob Fu, a Texas-based activist who runs the China Aid Association, to say that he was about to be arrested but that Chen already was safe. Civil rights lawyer Li Fangping said state security agents questioned him Friday about Chen. He’s cellphone rang unanswered Saturday.
In Dongshigu, where authorities have posted surveillance cameras and checkpoints since Chen’s release in 2010, local officials swarmed his brother’s home on Thursday, activists said, detaining the brother and his son after a violent scuffle. The county government, however, said the nephew remained at large and is wanted for assault.
In the video, Chen called on the premier, seen by many Chinese as a reformer, to punish those responsible.
"Including party leaders, police and other civilians, around 90 to 100 people have been involved in the persecution of my family. I hereby request to you, Premier Wen, to start an investigation into this case," Chen said.
Much about how Chen eluded his usually vigilant captors remains untold. "Obviously, he got some inside help," said Fu, the Texas activist.
His escape seemed to go unnoticed for several days. A Washington-based activist blogger quoted Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, as saying he heard his family members whispering that "Guangcheng’s gone" on Thursday morning, according to a transcript provided by the writer, Cao Yaxue.
On Thursday night, Zhang Jian, chief of the town that oversees Dongshigu, led local officials to scale the wall surrounding a house belonging to the activists’ relatives and his nephew, Chen Kegui, confronted them with a long vegetable knife, according to Cao and He.
Chen Kegui wounded Zhang and other officials, their accounts said. Chen and his father were detained by paramilitary police with electric batons while troops surrounded the family compound, Fu said.