U.S. officials reportedly seeking to negotiate a diplomatic solution.
BEIJING - The improbable escape of a well-known dissident from government detention -- aided by a network of activists who helped him evade security forces for days -- is emboldening China's often beleaguered human rights community, even as the authorities have begun rounding up those they suspect helped him flee.
As more details of his escape from virtual imprisonment in his home emerged Saturday, it became even more clear how difficult, and dangerous, the past week has been for both the dissident, Chen Guangcheng, who is blind, and the supporters who risked detention to assist his desperate sprint to safety to Beijing.
Gone for days
That such a network was able to help Chen elude his captors despite the country's pervasive surveillance apparatus has undoubtedly provoked alarm among Chinese leaders, who have been become increasingly determined to suppress dissent through technology and brute force. Chen, 40, was not only operating without sight last Sunday when he scrambled over the wall built around his farmhouse, friends say, he was also weakened by chronic diarrhea and hobbled by a leg injured by guards' beatings.
Chen then managed to evade a phalanx of guards at his house and around his village and slip past the authorities as he made his way from rural Shandong Province in northeast China to the capital 300 miles away.
Friends say his escape last Sunday was so well-planned that local officials did not realize he was gone until Thursday.
"His escape is nothing less than a miracle," said Zeng Jinyan, a human rights campaigner who spent time with Chen last week as he was shuttled between safe houses in Beijing.
Zeng and other friends, along with sources in the Chinese government, say he is now inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where officials are trying to negotiate a diplomatic solution that would ensure safety for him and the family he left behind -- and minimize any rupture in U.S.-China relations.
U.S. officials refused to say if Chen is at the embassy.
News of his improbable odyssey has electrified China's rights activists, scores of whom had sought for months to draw attention to his plight and to challenge his extralegal detention by flocking to Dongshigu in a futile attempt to see him.
A self-taught lawyer who was illiterate well into his 20s, Chen made a name for himself defending disenfranchised peasants and the disabled.
In 2006, he was jailed on charges that many legal experts say were trumped up. After serving his 51-month sentence, he was escorted back to his home -- which was turned into a makeshift prison for him, his wife and daughter. Details of their confinement emerged last year after the couple secretly recorded a video. Infuriated after it made its way to the Internet, the captors unleashed a series of beatings. Surveillance grew tighter after guards discovered that he was trying to dig a tunnel from his house, a friend said.
'Only one place' that's safe
Many details of Chen's escape remain murky, but supporters say he was aided by at least one of the guards sympathetic to his plight. They also say that the night before his escape, he was able to discuss his plans with supporters via cellphone -- a remarkable detail given that the guards had worked hard to ensure he was cut off from the outside world.
The friends said Chen's subterfuge was months in the making. In recent weeks, they said, he stayed in bed continuously, to convince his minders that he was too weak to walk.
After he scaled the wall outside his home, it reportedly took Chen 20 hours to reach a pre-determined pickup spot. It was then that He Peirong, a rights activist from Nanjing, arrived in her car and drove Chen to Beijing, said an account she posted on her microblog -- which has since been deleted. Authorities have since taken her away.
According to Hu Jia, a dissident who met with Chen last week, Chen spent the subsequent three days protected by a loose network of supporters.
Hu, who is under surveillance and served 3 1/2 years on subversion charges, would not provide details of the arrangement. But he said the group frantically tried to find a way to keep him safe. Hu, who was taken away by police shortly after talking with a reporter, said, "It was decided that there was only one place in China that is absolutely safe, and that's the U.S. Embassy."