Blind activist Chen Guancheng has taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after an improbable escape from extralegal house arrest in his village in Shandong province. Not only has Chen been blind since he was a teenager; he has reportedly become weakened after months of mistreatment and beatings by the guards. He had previously tried to dig a tunnel but this was discovered. The couple’s now-six-year-old daughter has been only allowed to leave the house to attend school.
Chinese authorities only discovered that Chen was missing on Thursday. After scaling a wall surrounding the house, he reportedly hid in the countryside until an activist, He “Pearl” Peirong, picked him up and drove him 300 miles to Beijing. Along the way he met recently imprisoned human rights and AIDS activist Hu Jia. In Beijing, Chen stayed at a different safe house every night until, says Hu, “It was decided that there was only one place in China that is absolutely safe, and that’s the U.S. Embassy.”
Chen’s escape surely brings into question the reach of China’s security and surveillance apparatus which is not, it seems, quite as air-tight as we are led to believe. But while Chinese activists are “electrified” at his escape, such success has a price. As the New York Times quotes Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch: “It’s hard to call this a victory if everyone involved in his escape ends up detained, arrested and imprisoned.”
Yuan Weijing and her daughter have remained behind; activists fear that Yuan and Chen’s mother could be in “grave danger.” The Guardian reports that his older brother, Chen Guangfu, and nephew, Chen Kegui, were arrested after guards broke into their house and took them away. Chen’s cousin, Chen Guangcun, and his cousin’s son, Chen Hua, have also been arrested. Activists He Peirong and Gao Yushan, who also aided in Chen’s escape, have both been detained. Hu Jia’s wife, Zeng Jinyan, said that he had been summoned to the police station on Saturday afternoon; she and their young daughter went there too shortly afterwards. Hu was questioned for 24 hours before being released.
ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian organization that has long supported Chen’s cause, said in a statement that “Chen is under US protection and high-level talks are under way between US and Chinese officials regarding his status.” Bob Fu of ChinaAid also called on the Obama administration to “stand firmly with him or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law.” Certainly Chen’s escape is already causing diplomatic headaches for China and for the U.S., with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other American officials traveling to China this week for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
As the Guardian notes, dissident Fang Lizhi took refuge in the U.S. embassy for a year following the crackdown after pro-democracy protests in 1989. After a year, he went to the U.S. for medical treatment, after lengthy negotiations. According to Hu Jia, Chen — whose family remains trapped in Shandong — wishes to remain in China. Bequelin of Human Rights Watch says that Chinese authorities are probably more concerned about other activists making similar escape attempts:
“If he is in the embassy, it’s a very tricky situation. I can’t see what meaningful guarantees China could give the US government. They have always denied he was suffering persecution.
“It’s as big a problem as China wants to make it … This is not the China of 1989. He could spend five years in the embassy.”
Chinese authorities have been at work censoring discussion of Chen online. Searches containing the words “blind person” and embassy” have been removed from Sina’s popular microblog service. The Guardian quotes an allegory posted by a scholar, Zhu Dake:
“The mole’s older and younger brothers, his mother and his baby still lived in the burrow. They became the hostages of the wolves … The mice in the walls and the mice in the field … couldn’t decide whether the [mole's] escape was a victory, or whether it was just the beginning of more hardship.”
Breaking through the door of hell and taking Chen Guangcheng away is a prison break thriller. The prison house is not only a physical place but in people’s heart. How can evil manifest itself so openly? The problem is not only in the system but in people’s silence. The Free Chen Guangcheng’s campaign has broken such silence…. Violent oppression cannot extend its power towards people’s spirit. Although justice has always been the target for crackdowns, its has endless power. Like Pearl [= He Peirong] has said on Google Plus: The most significant act is for people to speak out.
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