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Activist's high-profile escape from house arrest sparks manhunt in China

Chen Guangcheng.jpg

Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, in this video posted to YouTube, describes his escape from house arrest.

There’s a manhunt under way in Beijing, for a blind legal activist who is prepared to take on Chinese government officials and embarrass them.

Chen Guangcheng made an audacious escape from house arrest and made his way to a safe house in the Chinese capital, then posted a video message that made it to YouTube highlighting his family’s plight and calling on the authorities to arrest the perpetrators.

It's believed activists managed to spirit him away from his heavily guarded home and brought him by car to Beijing.

Bob Fu, a Chinese activist based in Texas, said Chen “was 100 percent in a safe location”.

And then, to the consternation of the Chinese authorities, Chen posted his video on the overseas Chinese news site Boxun.com, which then sent part of it to YouTube.

The video suggests the 40-year-old lawyer is in an apartment with the curtains closed, but the exact location can’t be verified.

An emotional Chen says on the video that he and his family are still in danger.

"I am now free. But my worries have not ended yet. ... My escape might ignite a violent revenge against my family," he says.

Activists say the escape has already triggered a frantic police search for him and his collaborators and a violent confrontation between his family and the local officials searching for him.

Chen is an improbable character to lead the fight for human rights in China but has become a central character for the cause.

He is a self-taught lawyer who was blinded by illness when young.

Chen served four years in jail for his work in exposing the government’s policies of forced abortions and sterilizations in his village and those nearby.

Since he was released, he had been forced to stay in his home despite no further charges against him. And activists say he and his family have faced regular beatings.

Chen’s ordeal had already become known to the wider world thanks to bloggers who called on people to go to his home and attempt to break the security cordon around it.

Hollywood actor Christian Bale was one of many who tried to visit him, but Bale was roughed up by a hired local gang during the attempt.

Now free, Chen finally has been able to get his message out. In the video he names the communist party officials who he accused of abusing him and his family.

And he directly appealed to Premier Wen Jiabao, who is thought to be a reformer, to arrest those responsible.

"Including party leaders, police and other civilians, around 90 to 100 people have been involved in the persecution of my family. I hereby request to you, Premier Wen, to start an investigation into this case," Chen says on the video.

The Chinese people have a long history of directly appealing to the central government for help.

Tens of thousands of people travel to Beijing each year to appeal for help, often, as in Chen’s case, to try to get action against corrupt local officials.

Most aren’t successful, and Chen’s actions come at a very sensitive time for the Chinese authorities.

In the past few weeks a high-profile politician, who was likely to rise to the ruling Politburo in a major communist meeting later in the year, was arrested in a case involving the death of a British businessman and a senior policeman attempting to claim asylum at a U.S. consulate.

There are rumors that Chen may have sought protection at the U.S. or other foreign embassies in Beijing. The U.S. Embassy has declined to comment.

But with Chen free and sending video messages, it will be seen as hugely embarrassing to the Chinese authorities. And with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had called for Chen’s release, visiting China next week, authorities there will hope to have found him before then.