BEIJING – Dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng was being held under house arrest illegally, activists say, and his only offense in escaping may have been to embarrass local officials bent on punishing him for exposing forced abortions.
Chen is now under the protection of U.S. diplomats, and American and Chinese officials are deliberating his fate in hopes of reaching a resolution ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's talks with Chinese leaders this week, his supporters say.
Beijing could lay the blame for Chen's detention on local authorities in rural Shandong province as a way to save face.
Even police in Beijing seem to tacitly acknowledge this, with a Chen supporter saying Tuesday that officers have noted in recent days that Chen broke no laws in his surprising escape through the security cordon surrounding his farmhouse in eastern China.
Bob Fu of the Texas-based group ChinaAid, citing a source close to the U.S. and Chinese governments, said they are discussing a deal to secure American asylum for Chen. However, Chen's supporters have said he does not want to leave the country. The U.S. State Department has repeatedly refused to comment on the case.
In the days since Chen reached the presumed custody of U.S. diplomats, security forces and officials have detained several of his supporters for questioning, including Beijing-based activist and Chen's friend, Hu Jia.
Hu said the two police officers who questioned him in Beijing acknowledged that Chen, as well as two other activists who helped the blind dissident flee his home in eastern China, did not act illegally.
"They are all free citizens," Hu quoted the police officers as saying. "For them to come to Beijing and so on, there is nothing illegal about it. They are free to do so. They did not do anything wrong, they have no legal trouble. We just want to understand the situation and verify it."
Beijing police had no immediate response to a faxed request for comment.
Hu also said that he understood from meeting with Chen after the escape that Chen did not wish to flee to the U.S.
The police acknowledgment is an indication that Chen's troubles with the authorities have primarily been about revenge by local leaders, who had seemed especially bitter and personal in their mistreatment of Chen.
Even after he served four years in prison on charges his supporters say were fabricated, local officials kept Chen, his wife and their 6-year-old daughter confined at home after his release in September 2010. They did so even though there was no legal basis for the detention, preventing outsiders from visiting the family and occasionally beating Chen and his wife.
Burly men patrolling the village and stationed on a main road leading into the community have beaten up would-be visitors to Chen's house, thrown stones at reporters and threatened diplomats.
In trying to resolve Chen's current situation, Beijing could lay the blame on local officials as a way to save face. In a similar fashion, when a village in southern China protesting against land seizures drove their local leaders out late last year, higher level authorities resolved the dispute by blaming village leaders they said had acted corruptly.
But the central government has never shown much inclination to stop the authorities in Shandong province's Linyi city, which oversees Chen's village of Dongshigu. The Chinese government has a long history of ignoring its own laws.
"The fact is that the Chinese central government of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao passively or actively condoned, if not outright encouraged local government officials and security forces in Shandong to victimize Chen Guangcheng and his family for years," said Human Rights Watch researcher Phelim Kine.
"The unlawful confinement and abuse endured by Chen Guangcheng and his family and now his subsequent escape only heightens justifiable domestic and international concerns about the state of rule of law in China," Kine said in emailed comments.
The 40-year-old self-taught lawyer angered local authorities after he documented forced late-term abortions and sterilizations and other abuses in his rural community, but he was sentenced for allegedly instigating an unrelated attack on government offices and organizing a group of people to disrupt traffic.
Chen's documentation and the international media attention it drew prompted the National Population and Family Planning Commission to investigate. The agency validated Chen's claims and said in late 2005 that some Linyi officials had been punished, with some of them removed from their posts and others detained.
However, once Chen started getting in trouble with the local authorities during the ensuing year, the national agency looked the other way.
"We have no information about Mr. Chen Guangcheng," agency spokesman Hao Hongcai said in July 2006. "This issue now belongs to the local authorities."
In a video apparently shot last week after his escape, Chen urged Premier Wen to punish the local authorities, saying it was not clear if the violations were the acts of local officials or ordered by the central government.
"I think you should give people a clear answer in the near future," Chen said. "If we start an investigation and tell the truth to the people, the result is obvious. If you continue to ignore it, what will people think?"
(This version CORRECTS Corrects Chen's age to 40.)