Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng flees guards for US haven

A BLIND civil rights campaigner – jailed for highlighting forced abortions and sterilisation in rural China under Beijing’s one-child policy – has fled house arrest and is now under American protection, activists said yesterday.

Chen Guangcheng escaped his guards in Shangdong province in eastern China last week – leaving his wife Yuan Weijing and six-year-old daughter behind – and was driven away by supporters who handed over to others who took him to Beijing, Chinese activists said.

A Texas-based group active in promoting Chen’s case said China and the US were in communication about the 40-year-old. “Chen is under US protection and high-level talks are under way between US and Chinese officials regarding his status,” the ChinaAid Association said.

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Chen’s whereabouts could be a major complication for the two countries, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top US officials due to arrive in China for the latest round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that begins Thursday.

The US embassy in Beijing declined to comment. Chinese vice-foreign minister Cui Tiankai told a briefing on the US talks “I have no information to give you,” when asked about Chen.

ChinaAid founder Bob Fu said Chen’s case was a benchmark for the US and its human rights image. “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,” he said.

But the case comes as the US is looking for help from China on issues such as trying to restrain North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and push Syria to observe a ceasefire in a 13-month uprising. Bilateral disputes over trade, China’s currency and US relations with Taiwan are also issues likely will be part of the talks scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

Chen recorded a video address to premier Wen Jiabao, condemning his treatment and accusing local Communist party officials by name. Activists sent the video to the news site Boxun.com, which posted part of it on YouTube.

Activist Hu Jia met Chen after his escape and said the people with Chen later called him. “They said, ‘He is in a 100 percent safe place. If they say that, I know where that place is. There’s only one 100 per cent safe place in China, and that’s the US embassy.”

Claims of Chen’s location could not be verified. Hu’s wife, Zeng Jinyan, posted a photo on Twitter of Chen and Hu together. Both were smiling.

Chen’s escape would boost a beleaguered civil rights community, which has faced rising harassment in the past year.

If Chen is in the US embassy or with US officials elsewhere, it is not known how he would be able to leave without Chinese permission.

In 1989, when the late Fang Lizhi, whose speeches inspired student protesters in the 1980s, fled with his wife to the US embassy after the 1989 military crackdown on the democracy movement, he was forced to stay there for 13 months before his fate was decided.

Chen’s case is complicated as his wife and daughter remain in Shandong. Fu said Chen’s case should be handled through talks, like Fang’s.

China’s media have been silent on the case, and items related to Chen and his village have been blocked online.

A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilisations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials have confined him to his home, beating him up on several occasions.

Fellow activists have encouraged people to visit Chen’s home in Dongshigu village despite the security cordon. Actor Christian Bale tried to visit, but was roughed up by locals paid to keep outsiders away.

Amnesty International called on Beijing to ensure Chen’s and his family’s safety, saying they had been abused during 18 months of illegal house arrest.