(Washington Post) BEIJING — Chen Guangcheng, the blind, self-taught lawyer known for his outspoken opposition to China’s forced abortion and sterilization policies, has escaped from house arrest and posted a dramatic YouTube video calling on Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate his case and protect his family.
Hu Jia, another prominent activist and friend of the Chen family, said Chen arrived in Beijing on Monday and was currently in the U.S. Embassy under the protection of U.S. diplomats. The embassy would neither confirm nor deny that he was there.
“As far as I know, he is in the U.S. Embassy, the safest place in China,” Hu said. “He is in the U.S. Embassy, or under the shelter of diplomats at least. I’m not sure if he’s going to ask for political asylum or not. I don’t know if he still wants to stay in China.”
All information about Chen has now been censored on Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging site that often serves as an alternative news source in China.
“Premier Wen, with great difficulty, I have escaped,” Chen announced in the video message.
Regardless of whether the U.S. government is currently helping shelter Chen, his escape from his village in Shandong province on Sunday, and the video detailing abuse he and his wife suffered under house arrest, seemed likely to embarrass the Beijing government just days before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner arrive for a long-scheduled talks on political and economic matters. Clinton has repeatedly called for Chen’s release.
“Since this happened just one week before the Sino-U.S. strategic dialogue, the timing is good,” Hu said. “Chen must be able to meet the U.S. human rights specialist and hopefully, he will meet Clinton.”
“This is an election year in the U.S.,” Hu said. “The Republicans are also watching what [President] Obama will do on this case.”
The Obama administration put up a wall of silence in the hours after Chen’s escape became public, refusing to confirm or deny the reports that he had sought refuge at the embassy in Beijing. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, pressed repeatedly by reporters at the department’s daily news briefing Friday, said only: “I don’t have anything for you on that subject.”
Asked more generally about China’s treatment of the blind dissident, Nuland acknowledged that the U.S. government had “spoken out about his case in the past.”
“We have always had concerns about this case,” she said.
It is extremely rare, but not unprecedented, for detained activists to evade their captors and escape from house arrest in China. Chen’s escape, which apparently was planned over several weeks, raised fears that he could face severe reprisals if he is caught.
If Chen is confirmed to be at the U.S. Embassy or under the protection of American diplomats, it would immediately present the Obama administration with the second thorny diplomatic dispute with China in less than three months, following a Feb. 6 incident involving the former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, who spent more than a day at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.