It was a feat worthy of a blockbuster movie: a blind and persecuted Chinese activist, beaten and harassed through two years of house arrest, slipped out under cover of darkness to scale a wall, cross a river and dodge at least a few dozen guards to make it to the protection of the American embassy in Beijing, some 500 kilometres away.
The daring escape of 40-year-old ‘barefoot lawyer’ Chen Guangcheng threatens to become a major diplomatic incident ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to China later this week and, despite efforts to censor discussion, is also capturing imaginations on China’s tightly controlled blogosphere.
Mr. Chen has been blind since infancy and was illiterate into his 20s, but became famous in China in the late 1990s when, after having trained himself in the legal system, he exposed and defended the victims of forced sterilizations and abortions in his native Shandong province.
Mr. Chen served four years in prison on charges widely considered fabricated and was released in 2010 to house arrest, where he and his family – including his mother, his wife and his young daughter – were subject to continued harassment and regular beatings. However he also became one of China’s best-known dissidents; a steady stream of fellow activists, journalists and diplomats who tried to visit him, including actor Christian Bale, were blocked, pelted with rocks, physically threatened or beaten.
With his health deteriorating, Mr. Chen made his break for freedom almost a week before it was made public.
“I finally escaped. All the stories online about the brutal treatment I received from the Linyi authorities, I can personally testify they are true. The reality is even harsher than the stories that have been circulating,” Mr. Chen said in a video circulated on Friday.
Mr. Chen is thin and pale in the video, and appears to have difficulty moving his arms. “[His health]is not so good, I should say [he is]in bad health,” artist and activist Ai Weiwei said in a brief telephone interview late Sunday, after speaking with a friend who met Mr. Chen in Beijing.
The escape, according to reports, was planned for months. First, to throw his minders off, Mr. Chen stayed in bed for days on end, feigning illness to get them accustomed to not seeing him regularly.
He made his escape the night of April 22, scaling the concrete wall that surrounds his shabby rural home, dropping down the other side and injuring his leg in the process, and then walking for hours to avoid detection.
After one night in a safe house in Shandong, he was driven the 500 kilometres to Beijing, arriving last Monday. He moved to a new safe house each night before reportedly seeking refuge at the U.S. Embassy on Friday, according to representatives from a U.S.-based organization which has been advocating for Mr. Chen’s release said.
Incredibly, the men guarding his house did not notice he was missing until last Thursday.
“He’s a blind man,” said Bob Fu, president of overseas Chinese Christian organization ChinaAid, “It’s nothing but a miracle that he was able to get out of his home.”
Though there remains no official confirmation on Mr. Chen’s whereabouts, that is expected to come within a day or two. An assistant U.S. secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, arrived in Beijing Sunday to discuss the case, and Ms. Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are due in Beijing on Thursday for the start of the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
At stake now is whether a deal will be reached to send Mr. Chen into exile abroad or whether – as the activist himself has reportedly requested – guarantees for his safety can be made to allow him to remain in China.
“Everything else is going to be sidelined, this is going to be the issue,” said Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “If, as seems to be the case, Chen Guangcheng is indeed under some form of U.S. government protection, it has all the makings of the diplomatic equivalent of a slow-motion car crash.”
Chinese authorities have lost no time in rounding up his inner circle. Among the first arrested was blogger and activist He Peirong, who said she drove Mr. Chen to Beijing.
Nothing has been heard from his wife, young daughter and mother who remain in the village surrounded by security. His nephew and his brother are believed to have been detained. Rights activist Hu Jia, who dodged his own house arrest in Beijing for a secret meeting with Mr. Chen, was detained for 24 hours over the weekend; his wife, Zeng Jinyan, posted on her Twitter account that she, too, had been questioned by police with her daughter in the house. Both met with Mr. Chen in Beijing and posted separate pictures on Twitter as proof.
Government censors reacted swiftly to prevent the news of the escape from spreading; online searches for Mr. Chen’s name and even his initials were blocked. Yet the industrious microbloggers on the popular Chinese web portal Weibo continued to share information using a collection of code words, including “Sunglasses” – referring to Mr. Chen’s dark ever-present sunglasses.
“The thing with Brother Sunglasses is over, the level it touches is too deep, we cannot help any more. So are the things with Umbrella [Guo Yushan, another activist who is presumed to be in detention]and Pearlher [the Twitter name for Ms. He] they are all over,” one microblogger, Yewukeyin, wrote, calling for help for Mr. Chen’s nephew.
Another microblogger, Xiaoxiaoliye, wrote of what he called “the story of the blind brother” and said: “It really didn’t occur to me that the safest place in the grand imperial dynasty is the embassy of the barbarians.”
The Chinese government was already reeling from the downfall of Bo Xilai, the up-and-coming Communist Party secretary of Chongqing who was deposed amidst a corruption scandal that includes the death of a British businessman and whose right-hand man attempted to seek sanctuary in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Mr. Chen’s case and discussions of his fate will likely deepen China’s embarrassment and anger when it comes to relations with the United States.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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