Saturday, April 28, 2012

Challenge for U.S. After Escape by China Activist

BEIJING — The dramatic nighttime escape of a blind rights lawyer from extralegal house arrest in his village dealt a major embarrassment to the Chinese government and left the United States, which may be sheltering him, with a new diplomatic quandary as it seeks to improve its fraught relationship with Beijing.

The lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, one of the best-known and most politically savvy Chinese dissidents, evaded security forces surrounding his home this week and, aided by an underground network of human rights activists, secretly made his way about 300 miles to Beijing, where he is believed to have found refuge in the American Embassy, according to advocates and Chinese officials.

An official in the Chinese Ministry of State Security on Friday said that Mr. Chen had reached the United States Embassy, but American officials would not confirm reports that Mr. Chen had found shelter there.

Mr. Chen’s escape represents a significant public relations challenge for the Chinese government, which has sought to relegate him to obscurity, confining him to his home in the remote village of Dongshigu and surrounding him with plainclothes security guards, even though there are no outstanding legal charges against him.

The case also poses a major new diplomatic test for the United States. In February, the Obama administration was thrust into an internal Chinese political dispute when Wang Lijun, the former top police official from the region of Chongqing, sought refuge in the American Consulate in Chengdu. Mr. Wang revealed details about the killing of a British businessman, setting off a cascade of events that led to the downfall of Bo Xilai, who was the party chief in Chongqing and a member of China’s Politburo. American diplomats said they had determined that Mr. Wang’s case did not involve national security, and he was turned over to Chinese officials, prompting criticism from some in Washington about their handling of the case. Both sides insist Mr. Wang left of his own accord.

But with Mr. Chen now believed to be on the grounds of the American Embassy in Beijing, administration officials are likely to be far more cautious in handling his case. His advocacy for the handicapped and for families subject to forced abortions and other coercive population control methods is widely known in the West. He also became a symbol of the deficiencies of China’s legal system after he was convicted of criminal charges in 2006 in a prosecution that Chinese lawyers — and even some officials in Beijing — felt made a mockery of China’s claims to be developing better legal norms.

Mr. Chen, according to those who have spoken to him, slipped away on Sunday evening from his home in Shandong Province, where he has been held incommunicado since his release from prison in September 2010. Ai Weiwei, the artist and government critic who has also been subjected to residential detention, though far less draconian, said he had spoken to a friend who met with Mr. Chen in Beijing on Wednesday. The friend said Mr. Chen had climbed over a wall at night and evaded multiple lines of guards.

“You know he’s blind, so the night to him is nothing,” Mr. Ai said the friend told him. “I think that’s a perfect metaphor.”

Among those who helped Mr. Chen was He Peirong, a family friend who said Mr. Chen had planned his escape far in advance, staying in bed for long periods of time to trick guards into thinking he was too sick to walk. In an account she wrote on her microblog early Friday, Ms. He said that Mr. Chen had called her after fleeing the village. She said she then picked him up in her car, and they drove to Beijing. By late morning on Friday, Ms. He had been taken by public security agents from her home in Nanjing, according to Bob Fu, president of China Aid, a Christian rights group in Texas. Her microblog account was later deleted.

A spokesman for China’s foreign minister on Friday said he had no information about the episode, but one intelligence officer expressed bewilderment that Mr. Chen had evaded his local government captors and had probably entered the embassy.

“It’s still not clear how this happened,” the intelligence officer said. “Was this happenstance, or was it planned this way? Are there others planning to do the same?”

The timing is especially inopportune for Beijing, given that it is preparing to welcome Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and other American officials next week for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

A vice foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, said Saturday morning that the meeting would go ahead as planned next week. Mr. Cui also played down the Chen case. “I don’t think this issue will occupy much time or focus,” he said, regarding the meeting. “So I have no information for you on it.”

The escape creates headaches for Washington, which has been eager to improve relations with the Chinese on various economic and security issues. Those efforts have lately paid dividends, with Beijing increasingly cooperating with American diplomatic moves to pressure Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs. China has also shown a willingness to support United Nations efforts to broker a cease-fire in Syria.

Mrs. Clinton has addressed Mr. Chen’s case on several occasions, most recently in a speech on Asian policy in November that prompted a sharp rebuke from Beijing. “We are alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest,” she said then, “as well as the continued house arrest of the Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng. We continue to call on China to embrace a different path.”

On Friday, however, the State Department’s spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said she would make no comment about Mr. Chen’s escape or his whereabouts. The White House also declined to comment, and a scheduled briefing on Mrs. Clinton’s planned visit was postponed.

“Chen Guangcheng is a very strong candidate for asylum,” said Susan L. Shirk, a former State Department official who is now a professor at the University of California, San Diego. “A blind lawyer who is being persecuted for exposing forced abortions? I don’t think there’s any question about it.”

But, as in the exploding scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, the Obama administration has sought to keep itself out of China’s internal politics.

Rights advocates said Mr. Chen was not seeking to leave China, but would try to negotiate his freedom with the Chinese authorities.

“He is reluctant to go overseas and wants only to live like a normal Chinese citizen,” said Mr. Fu.

Shortly after news of Mr. Chen’s daring escape began circulating, a video appeared on YouTube on Friday, filmed in the days since he gained his freedom, in which he described life under house arrest. The video, in the form of an appeal to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, detailed the abuse that he and his family suffered.

He told of how his daughter was followed to school by three guards each day and how guards had kicked his wife for hours on end. “Prime Minister Wen, you owe the people an explanation,” he said. “Are these atrocities the result of local officials violating the law or a result of orders from the top leadership?”

It is not the first time that Mr. Chen has sought to publicize the details of his confinement. Last year, he and his wife were reportedly severely beaten after a video they secretly recorded inside their home was smuggled out of the village and posted on the Internet. Friends say the subsequent abuse by their captors had left Mr. Chen in frail health.

Mr. Chen, 40, is a self-taught lawyer, who was once lauded by the state media for his work defending farmers and the disabled. But he angered local officials after taking on the case of thousands of women who had been forcibly sterilized in Linyi County. During a brief trial in 2006, he was sentenced to 51 months in jail on charges of destroying property and assembling a crowd to disrupt traffic — charges that advocates say were trumped up, given that he was under house arrest at the time.

After his release, he was taken directly to his family’s stone farmhouse, which was turned into a makeshift prison. His wife, and for a time his young daughter, were also confined inside the house, which was ringed by surveillance cameras, floodlights and a rotating cordon of guards.

Reporters, diplomats and Chinese activists who tried to visit Mr. Chen were violently repelled by guards.

Rights advocates on Friday expressed concern for Mr. Chen and for his wife, Yuan Weijing, who activists said was left behind. Still, Mr. Fu of China Aid said he was optimistic that Mr. Chen might be able to negotiate his freedom. “The fact that he’s escaped will really shake up Chinese security forces,” he said. “It tells them that they are not almighty God.”



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