BEIJING (AP) — A blind legal activist and inspirational figure in China's rights movement fled the house arrest he has lived under and made it to a secret location in Beijing on Friday, setting off a frantic police search for him and those who helped him, activists said.
Chen Guangcheng's escape, if ultimately successful, would boost a beleaguered civil rights community, which has faced rising arrests and other harassment over the past year.
Activists described an improbable escape, saying Chen slipped away from his well-guarded rural village on Sunday night, driven away by activists and then transferred to others who brought him to Beijing.
By Friday afternoon, Chen "was 100 percent in a safe location," said Bob Fu, an activist based in Texas who runs the China Aid Association and who was in contact with people helping Chen. But Chen's flight unleashed a police crackdown on his relatives and the people who helped him flee, activists said.
"I am now free. But my worries have not ended yet," Chen said in a video that was recorded this week and that activists sent Friday to the overseas Chinese news site Boxun.com, which then posted part of it on YouTube. It could not be independently verified. Speaking to a camera in a room with an off-white curtain drawn behind him, Chen said, "My escape might ignite a violent revenge against my family."
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 — led by blogger He Peirong — 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.
Why activists spirited Chen to Beijing was not immediately known.
Though China's most policed city, Beijing is home to foreign embassies that could provide asylum. Chen's mistreatment has often seemed to be a vendetta by local officials, and perhaps Chen and his helpers thought a direct appeal to the central leadership would help.
The escape threatens to unleash a new wave of negative publicity for the authoritarian government when top leaders are already dealing with the fallout from the toppling of a former powerful politician, cashiered amid allegations of corruption, murder and abuse of power.