Blind rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng and US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. (AFP)
Beijing, April 28: The dramatic night-time escape of a blind rights lawyer from house arrest in his village dealt a major embarrassment to the Chinese government and left the US, which may be sheltering him, with a new diplomatic quandary as it seeks to improve its fraught relationship with Beijing.
The lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, one of the best-known and most politically savvy Chinese dissidents, evaded security forces surrounding his home this week and, aided by an underground network of human rights activists, secretly made his way about 482km to Beijing, where he is believed to have found refuge in the American embassy, according to advocates and Chinese officials.
An official in the Chinese ministry of state security yesterday said that Chen had reached the US embassy, but American officials would not confirm reports that Chen had found shelter there. Chen’s escape represents a significant public relations challenge for the Chinese government, which has sought to relegate him to obscurity, confining him to his home in the remote village of Dongshigu and surrounding him with plainclothes security guards, even though there are no outstanding legal charges against him.
The case also poses a major new diplomatic test for the US.
In February, the Obama administration was thrust into an internal Chinese political dispute when Wang Lijun, the former top police official from the region of Chongqing, sought refuge in the American consulate in Chengdu.
Wang revealed details about the killing of a British businessman, setting off a cascade of events that led to the downfall of Bo Xilai, who was the party chief in Chongqing and a member of China’s Politburo. American diplomats said they had determined that Wang’s case did not involve national security, and he was turned over to Chinese officials, prompting criticism from some in Washington about their handling of the case.
Both sides insist Wang left of his own accord.But with Chen now believed to be on the grounds of the American embassy in Beijing, administration officials are likely to be far more cautious in handling his case. His advocacy for the handicapped and for families subject to forced abortions and other coercive population control methods is widely known in the West.
He also became a symbol of the deficiencies of China’s legal system after he was convicted of criminal charges in 2006 in a prosecution that Chinese lawyers — and even some officials in Beijing — felt made a mockery of China’s claims to be developing better legal norms.
Chen, according to those who have spoken to him, slipped away on Sunday evening from his home in Shandong province, where he has been held incommunicado since his release from prison in September 2010. Ai Weiwei, the artist and government critic who has also been subjected to residential detention, though far less draconian, said he had spoken to a friend who met Chen in Beijing on Wednesday.
The friend said Chen had climbed over a wall at night and evaded multiple lines of guards. “You know he’s blind, so the night to him is nothing,” Ai said the friend told him. “I think that’s a perfect metaphor.” Among those who helped Chen was He Peirong, a family friend who said Chen had planned his escape far in advance, staying in bed for long periods of time to trick guards into thinking he was too sick to walk.
In an account she wrote on her microblog early yesterday, He said that Chen had called her after fleeing the village. She said she then picked him up in her car, and they drove to Beijing. By late morning yesterday, He had been taken by public security agents from her home in Nanjing, according to Bob Fu, president of China Aid, a Christian rights group in Texas. Her microblog account was later deleted.
A spokesman for China’s foreign minister yesterday said he had no information about the episode, but one intelligence officer expressed bewilderment that Chen had evaded his local government captors and had probably entered the embassy. “It’s still not clear how this happened,” the intelligence officer said.
“Was this happenstance, or was it planned this way? Are there others planning to do the same?” The timing is especially inopportune for Beijing, given that it is preparing to welcome secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, treasury secretary Timothy F. Geithner and other American officials next week for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
A vice-foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, said this morning that the meeting would go ahead as planned next week. Cui also played down the Chen case. “I don’t think this issue will occupy much time or focus,” he said, regarding the meeting. “So I have no information for you on it.”
The escape creates headaches for Washington, which has been eager to improve relations with the Chinese on various economic and security issues. Those efforts have lately paid dividends.
China has also shown a willingness to support UN efforts to broker a ceasefire in Syria. Clinton has addressed Chen's case on several occasions, most recently in a speech on Asian policy in November that prompted a sharp rebuke from Beijing.
“We are alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest,” she said then, “as well as the continued house arrest of the Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng. We continue to call on China to embrace a different path.”
Yesterday, however, the state department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said she would make no comment about Chen’s escape or his whereabouts.