Has Chinese human rights activist and lawyer Chen Guangcheng taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after a daring nighttime escape from extralegal house arrest in his village, some 300 miles away from the Chinese capital?
Aided by a network of activists, the 40-year-old Chen, who is blind, was able to evade security forces guarding his home on Sunday, scaling a high wall before being driven to Beijing. His fellow activist Hu Jia says that Chen is now in the U.S. Embassy, though American officials have not confirmed reports that he is there.
“You know he’s blind, so the night to him is nothing. I think that’s a perfect metaphor”: So a friend who saw Chen said to Ai WeiWei, the artist and activist who was detained for several weeks and kept from contact with his family last year.
Advocate For People With Disabilities and Peasants
Chen is a self-taught lawyer who was first lauded as a champion of peasants’ rights. He assisted people with disabilities from paying illegal fees and taxes and, says the New York Times, worked to stop a paper mill from polluting a local river with toxic chemicals. But he went from being a darling for Chinese authorities (clips from his wedding were broadcast on television) to a deep thorn in their side when, in 2005, he filed a class-action lawsuit against the local authorities for forcing women to have late-term abortions and be sterilized. Chen was sentenced to 51 months in jail following a brief trial on shaky charges.
After his release from a four-year-jail sentence in September 2010, Chen was placed under house arrest in his hometown of Dongshigu town in Shandong province. Though he faces no outstanding legal charges, he has been surrounded with plainclothes security guards with walkie-talkies; floodlights and surveillance cameras have been aimed at his house. His wife, Yuan Weijing, and, for some time, his young daughter were also confined in the house. Last year, Chen and his wife were severely beaten after a video they filmed of their life imprisoned in the house was smuggled out and posted on the Internet.
According to the BBC, Chinese authorities only realized that Chen had escaped on Thursday. Hu said that he had met Chen in the past 72 hours and Hu’s wife, from whom he is separated, posted a photo of the two together on Twitter.
Fears For Family and Friends Left Behind
Yuan Weijing remained behind and Chen’s brother and nephew have reportedly been detained as has He Peirong, a family friend. According to her microblog (which has now been deleted), He said that Chen had called her after fleeing from his village, after which she drove him to Beijing. By Friday morning, she was taken from her home in Nanjing and detained.
Chen has made a video directed to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in which he makes three demands: For local officials who beat his family members to be investigated and prosecuted; for his family’s safety to be assured; for China to address corruption in general and punish wrongdoers in accordance with the law. The video was posted by Boxun, a U.S.-based Chinese dissident site.
As the New York Times says, Chen’s daring escape has created diplomatic quandaries, and headaches, for China — who is to host Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and other American officials for the annuals annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue next week — and for the U.S., which has been attempting to improve relations with Beijing on economic and security fronts. While Clinton has mentioned Chen’s case several times, the State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland said that she had “no comment” about where he might be as of Friday. As with the growing scandal surrounding detained politician Bo Xilai (who is said to have spied on top Chinese officials) , the U.S. has been seeking to steer clear of China’s internal politics.
While Chen could apply for asylum, activists say that he is not seeking to leave his country and hopes to negotiate his freedom with China.
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