The location of legal activist Chen Guangcheng remains uncertain following his escape from house arrest in the Shandong village of Dongshigu, with widespread speculation pointing to the US embassy in Beijing. He is reported to be somewhere “100% safe”, but the same cannot be said of friends, family and supporters, against whom reprisals are either feared or already apparently underway.
Chen is said to have prepared for months for his escape, spending more and more time in bed so that his captors would not grow suspicious at a lack of visible activity; consequently, it took them four days to realise he was gone, according to lawyer Teng Biao. Chen appeared in a 15-minute video posted to YouTube last night by the Boxun Chinese-language news site. In the video, he makes three requests to Premier Wen Jiabao:
Looking gaunt, Chen blamed his treatment on local officials and the Chinese state’s obsession with maintaining stability at all costs. He said his greatest concern was that the authorities would carry out “insane retribution” on his family, several of whom have already been placed under arrest ….
… Chen confirmed he was beaten and said 90 to 100 local officials were involved in his detention. He expressed “extreme concern” about retaliation against his family. Chen confirmed reports about his maltreatment that have appeared over the years. “The truth was even worse,” he said. “I formally made three requests to Premier Wen Jiabao. First, severely punish criminals. Second, look into this yourself, and third, send a special investigation team to find out the truth.”
“The episode has the potential to embarrass some officials acutely,” said The Economist’s Analects blog, “at both the local level where they failed to stop Mr Chen’s escape, and at the central level. China’s top leaders seldom suffer the indignity of having demands put to them in such public and adversarial fashion.” But Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas Bequelin pointed out that Chen had been “careful to put the blame solely on local authorities … [and] calls Wen Jiabao to defend ordinary people from corrupt officials.” Whatever the truth of the central government’s part in his confinement, Bequelin argued that this approach “leaves ample room for the Chinese gvt to handle the situation intelligently without losing face.”
US Embassy staff in Beijing have repeatedly declined to comment on rumours that the activist has sought shelter there. But Bob Fu, of Christian human rights organisation China Aid, told China Real Time and others that Chen was in a “100% safe location in Beijing”, adding “I can’t say more as there might be some diplomatic issues”. Bloomberg’s Mike Forsythe commented that he could think of only one 100% safe location in Beijing, while Hu Jia expressed the same conclusion to The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts:
A photograph released on Friday night shows him with a friend and fellow activist, Hu Jia, who said Chen was under US protection. “It is my understanding that Chen is in the safest place in China. That is the US embassy,” said Hu.
If confirmed, the incident could overshadow a planned trip to Beijing next week by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner.
It would be the second case this year of a high-profile figure seeking refuge at a US diplomatic office in China. In February, Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun fled to the US consulate in Chengdu claiming his life was threatened because of his investigation into the death of British businessman Neil Heywood.
He Peirong, who helped Chen escape, had previously said to the Associated Press that Chen was not at the embassy, and told Reuters later that she had lost touch with him and he had “probably fallen into the hands of the police”. He was apparently arrested herself on Friday morning, according to The Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Fu said he was talking to Ms. He at 11 a.m. Beijing time when she told him public security agents had arrived at her door and hung up. He has not been able to reach her since, he said. Attempts to reach Ms. He through her cellphone were unsuccessful.
William Farris reports that He’s online name, “Pearlher”, has since been blocked as a search term on Sina Weibo, one of a number of related words and phrases to have been censored. In Dongshigu, a number of Chen’s relatives are said to have been taken into custody. As local authorities repeatedly stated, Chen Guangcheng was legally a free man, so He and others committed no offence in helping him escape. Meanwhile, police continue to hunt for his nephew, Chen Kegui, who was involved in a violent altercation with officials who had broken into his home and seized his father. Charles Custer translated the local authorities’ official account of the incident, together with (now deleted) comments from Sohu. From China Geeks:
On April 26, Dongshigu village resident Chen Kegui injured local government officials and staff workers with knives. At present, Chen Kegui has fled, the injured parties are being treated, and the local public security organs are on the hunt for Chen Kegui. The relevant parties will be dealt with according to the law.
Why would he stab them, why would a commoner want to go stab them, release the facts.
How can you not mention Chen Guangcheng? Please release the location and motive for this incident.
Well done citizen, I support you.
Chen Kegui’s side of the story can be found at Seeing Red in China, where Yaxue Cao has translated her earlier telephone conversation with him.
Attempts to stifle the news online have been predictably unsuccessful. Tea Leaf Nation rounded up some netizens’ reactions:
One account tweeted a poem, not long after the news of Chen’s escape first emerged, titled “Blindness of the Eye and Blindness of the Mind” that is being seen by some netizens as a coded celebration of Lawyer Chen’s role as a beacon for justice despite his disability.
A blind person said to God: ‘Lord, this is unfair, why is it only I who cannot see the light?’ God said, “No, no don’t doubt my justice; though some can see the bustling world, their hearts are forever sunk in darkness; although your eyes are blind, I planted in your heart the seed of light. Use your heart to feel! My child, you yourself are the light, and their eyes are used for gazing up at you!” 
One netizen tweeted in response, “This makes me think of Lawyer Chen. I hear he’s gone to a good place and received protection. I hope it’s true.” Another echoed the poem’s sentiment: “The dark night gave me black eyes, but I used them to find the light…” [The entirety of Gu Cheng’s 1979 poem, ‘A Generation‘] One netizen simply tweeted the characters in Chen’s name: “Light, Honesty” 光，诚。
Update: In a similar vein, Ai Weiwei quoted a mutual friend who had met Chen since his escape:
“You know he’s blind, so the night to him is nothing,”“I think that’s a perfect metaphor.”
— 艾未未Ai Weiwei (@aiww) April 27, 2012
At The New York Times, Andrew Jacobs reported further support for claims that Chen is now at the American embassy (which the embassy itself still neither confirms nor denies), and explained the diplomatic dilemma in which this would place the US:
An official in the Chinese Ministry of State Security on Friday said that Mr. Chen had reached the American Embassy, but American officials would not confirm reports that Mr. Chen had found shelter there ….
The case … 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 top police official from the region of Chongqing, sought refuge in the American Consulate in Chengdu …. American diplomats said they had determined that Mr. Wang’s case did not involve national security, and they turned him over to Chinese officials, prompting criticism in Washington about their handling of the case.
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 ….
An editorial at The Washington Post urged the Obama administration to protect Chen, regardless of political sensitivities.
It is not clear if Mr. Chen is seeking asylum in the United States. Activists in touch with him say he wishes only to be allowed to live legally and in peace in China, and that he is reluctant to leave the country. But Mr. Chen clearly qualifies for political asylum, and there is a precedent for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing serving as a harbor for a dissident — Fang Lizhi, who lived there for a year following the 1989 Tiananmen square crackdown.
As U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke pointed out in January, China’s respect for human rights “is in a down period, and it’s getting worse.” Ms. Clinton mentioned Mr. Chen by name in a speech last November in which she called on Beijing “to embrace a different path.”
Well-timed or not, the administration’s handling of this affair may tell the new Chinese leadership, and the rest of the world, whether the United States is serious about defending those who seek to push China toward that different path.
Beijing, meanwhile, has been no more forthcoming. From Reuters:
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said the question did not come within the scope of the news briefing, which was about high level talks next week in Beijing between the United States and China.
Asked whether any issue could force the meeting to be cancelled or postponed, Cui said he had already stated the event would be going ahead as scheduled.
“I don’t know why you’d ask the question,” he said.
chinadialogue founder Isabel Hilton noted at The Guardian that Chen’s escape interrupts a carefully constructed official narrative portraying Bo Xilai’s downfall as a sign of robust rule of law.
[Chen’s] extraordinary escape from house arrest … has all the elements of a police thriller. His astonishing appearance on YouTube provides a reminder of everything the party propaganda machine has tried to play down in recent weeks: police torture, arbitrary detention, abuse of power and the lack of legal protections.
Pro-government media in China this week have followed the party line that all is calm, constitutional and legal in the aftermath of the spectacular fall of Chongqing’s party secretary Bo Xilai and his wife’s arrest on suspicion of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood earlier this month. The pro-government newspaper Global Times on Wednesday accused western media of sensationalism in their reporting of a story that has repeatedly threatened to escape from China’s normally effective government control. “Western disclosure attempts cannot be more authoritative and detailed than the investigation of the central government … waiting for the final results and interpreting Bo’s case based on the authoritative information should be the rational attitude to take,” the paper advised.
The plight of Chen Guangcheng, his family and his supporters is an exemplar of the yawning gap between the Chinese government’s frequent avowals of support for rule of law with the far grimmer reality faced by Chinese citizens who challenge the status quo. Other high-profile victims of such rough justice include the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and the recently imprisoned housing rights activist Ni Yulan ….
A betrayal of Chen and his family will only feed popular skepticism about the ruling Chinese government’s 62-year monopoly on power during the current transition to new leadership. As Chen said in the video released on Boxun, “If we have a thorough investigation into my case and announce the result, I think people would appreciate it. If you continue to ignore me, what would the public think?”
See also Tania Branigan’s explanation of Chen and his wife’s activism and persecution at The Guardian, and Murong Xuecun’s account of his attempt to visit Chen late last year via CDT.