BEIJING – A blind legal activist who fled house arrest in his Chinese village is under the protection of American officials, overseas activists said Saturday, putting the U.S. in a difficult position days ahead of a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Chen Guangcheng, who has exposed forced abortions and sterilizations in villages as a result of China's one-child policy, escaped a week ago from his guarded home in Shandong province in eastern China. Chinese-based activists say he was driven away by supporters and then handed over to others who brought him to Beijing.
The U.S. and Chinese governments have not confirmed reports that he sought protection at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
A Texas-based activist group that has been active in promoting Chen's case said that China and the U.S. were in high-level communication about the 40-year-old.
"Chen is under U.S. protection and high-level talks are currently under way between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen's status," said a statement from the ChinaAid Association. It cited a source close to the situation.
Chen's whereabouts could be a major political complication for the two countries, with Clinton and other top U.S. officials due to arrive in China for the latest round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that begins Thursday.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing declined to comment Saturday, as have U.S. officials in Washington.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai told a briefing earlier Saturday on the upcoming talks with the U.S. that he had no information on Chen's case.
"Your question does not come within the scope of today's briefing. So I have no information to give you," he said when asked about Chen.
ChinaAid's founder, Bob Fu, said Chen's case was a benchmark for the United States and its human rights image around the world.
"Because of Chen's wide popularity, the Obama administration must stand firmly with him or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law," he said in the statement.
"If there is a reason why Chinese dissidents revere the U.S., it is for a moment like this," Fu said.
But the case comes as the United States is looking for help from China on many issues around the world, 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. Bilateral disputes over trade, China's currency and U.S. relations with Taiwan are also issues that likely will be part of the talks scheduled for Thursday and Friday.
Fu and Chinese-based activists say Chen slipped away from his intensely guarded home on the night of April 22. His wife and 6-year-old daughter are still there.
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 Boxun.com, which posted part of it on YouTube.
Activist Hu Jia met with Chen after his escape and said the people with Chen later called him. "They said, 'He is in a 100 percent safe place,'" Hu said. "If they say that, I know where that place is. There's only one 100 percent (safe) place in China, and that's the U.S. Embassy." Claims of Chen's location could not be verified.
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.
Chen's escape, if ultimately successful, would boost a beleaguered civil rights community, which has faced rising arrests and other harassment over the past year.
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.
In 1989, when Fang Lizhi, whose speeches inspired student protesters throughout the 1980s, fled with his wife to the U.S. Embassy after China's 1989 military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, he was forced to stay there for 13 months while the countries discussed his fate.
Chen's case is more complicated because his wife and daughter are still trapped in Shandong.
Fu said Chen's case should be handled through negotiations, like Fang's, and that his family should not suffer any reprisals.
"The odds are that it will be a long negotiation and a stalemate for a time," said Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University. "China has some cards to play starting with Chen's wife and children plus the accomplices to his escape."
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 exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials confined him to his home, despite the lack of legal grounds for doing so, beating him up on several occasions.
Chen was widely admired by rights activists at home who last year campaigned to publicize his case among ordinary Chinese and encourage them to go to Dongshigu village and break the security cordon. Even Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to visit, but as with many others he was roughed up by locals paid to keep outsiders away.
Amnesty International and other human rights groups called on the Chinese government to ensure the safety of Chen and his family, saying they had been abused during 18 months of illegal house arrest.