Escaped China activist now under U.S. protection, rights group says

A Chinese activist who exposed forced abortions and other atrocities in his home country has escaped house arrest in his province and is under the protection of U.S. officials, a Christian human rights group said Saturday.

The announcement about blind activist Chen Guangcheng by the Texas- based ChinaAid group comes just days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit Beijing.

The 40-year-old Chen exposed forced abortions and sterilizations in Chinese villages that are part of the country’s one-child policy.

He fled April 22 from his guarded home in Shandong province in eastern China. Activists said local supporters took Chen away by car, then delivered him to others who brought him to Beijing.

Chen had been held in his home since his release from prison in September 2010.

Neither the United States nor China has confirmed the reports of Chen’s fleeing or his whereabouts.

However, ChinaAid President Bob Fu told Fox News on Saturday he has confirmed reports that Chen is under diplomatic protection in Beijing and that officials are involved in “high-level negotiations about the next step.”

Fu hopes Chen’s departure will be a catalyst for large talks about human rights conditions in China, regardless what happens before Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner visit there Thursday and Friday for talks on global economics and topics including the violence in Sudan.

“Given Mrs. Clinton’s repeatedly telling China to release him, I’m optimistic this will help the diplomatic push,” Fu said.

He called the development a “pivotal moment” for U.S. human rights diplomacy.

“The Obama administration must stand firmly with (Chen) or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law,” Fu added.“ If there is a reason why Chinese dissidents revere the U.S., it is for a moment like this."

He also said the case should be handled like that of professor Fang Lizhi.

In 1989, Lizhi, whose speeches inspired student protesters throughout the 1980s, fled with his wife to the U.S. Embassy after China's military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. He stayed there for 13 months while the countries discussed his fate.

Chen's case comes as the U.S. is looking for help from China on many worldwide issues, such as trying to restrain North Korea and Iran on their nuclear ambitions, and push Syria to observe a cease-fire in the fighting in that country.

Fu and Chinese-based activists said Chen's his wife and 6-year-old daughter are still at the family's home.

Chen recorded a video as a direct address to Premier Wen Jiabao, condemning the treatment of him and his family and accusing local Communist Party officials by name. Activists sent the video Friday to the overseas Chinese news site, which posted part of it on YouTube.

Activist Hu Jia met with Chen after his escape and said people with Chen later called him.

If Chen is in the U.S. Embassy or with U.S. officials at another location, it is not known how he would be able to leave or where he could go without Chinese permission. There was no extra security outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Saturday.

Hu's wife, Zeng Jinyan, posted a photo Friday on Twitter of Chen and Hu together. Chen is wearing the same clothes he wore in the video. Both men are smiling.

China's media have been silent on the case, and most words related to Chen and his village have been blocked online. Chinese political analysts have declined to comment.

A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison for revealing the abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release, local officials confined him to his home, beating him up on several occasions.

Chen is widely admired. Even Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to visit, but was roughed up by locals.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.