BEIJING —A blind legal activist who is a key figure in China’s rights movement escaped the house arrest he has lived under for a year-and-a-half, fleeing to an unknown location and angering his captors, fellow rights campaigners said Friday.
Chen Guangcheng slipped out of his usually well-guarded house in Dongshigu town on Sunday, said activists, who are based in China and overseas. He Peirong, a leading campaigner for Chen’s freedom, said she picked him up and drove him to “a relatively safe place” she would not further describe.
If confirmed, Chen’s freedom would be a boost for a persecuted dissident community that has seen repression increase over the past two years. His plight under house arrest has been closely monitored by Western governments and by local activists, who have seen Chen—a self-taught lawyer who was blinded by a fever in infancy—as an inspiring, determined fighter for justice.
“His mental state is pretty good. He’s alive, but whether he’s safe I don’t know,” He said from her home city of Nanjing. She said she left Chen a few days ago but declined to discuss further details, other than to say he is no longer in his home province of Shandong, southeast of Beijing.
She denied an online report by Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper that Chen entered the US Embassy in Beijing on Thursday night. The paper did not name a source.
“I can tell you he’s not at the US Embassy, and he’s not in Shandong. I did talk to the US Embassy people, though,” He said.
The embassy would not comment. Security outside the building appeared normal on Friday.
Rumors that Chen had died circulated on microblogs overnight. Local officials could not be reached for comment, the phone lines in Dongshigu having seemingly been disconnected.
Word of his escape apparently angered local officials, who began searching homes in Dongshigu looking for him on Thursday, said He and Bob Fu, an activist based in Texas who runs the China Aid Association. Both had been in contact with members of Chen’s family.
They said the town chief, Zhang Jian, led others to Chen’s brother’s home, then climbed over a wall to go after the family.
“Zhang Jian found out Chen was gone. He was furious…” He said. “They beat all the family who were at the home.”
She said Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, “took a cleaver for self-defense. He said he hacked several people with the cleaver and wounded them.”
Fu said Chen Kegui and his father, Chen Guangfu, had been detained by paramilitary police armed with electric shock batons. Troops had surrounded the family compound in Dongshigu and were preventing Chen Kegui’s ill six-year-old son from being taken to hospital, Fu said.
Chen Guangcheng’s treatment by local authorities had seemed especially bitter and personal. He served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his rural community. Since his release in September 2010, local officials kept him confined to his home, despite the lack of legal grounds for doing so. They prevented outsiders from visiting him and occasionally beat him up.