BEIJING — The surprising escape of a blind legal activist from house arrest to the presumed custody of U.S. diplomats is buoying China's embattled dissident community even as the government lashes out, detaining those who helped him and squelching mention of his name on the Internet.
The flight of Chen Guangcheng, a campaigner for disabled rights and opponent of coercive family planning, is a challenge for China's authoritarian government and, if it's confirmed that he is in U.S. custody, for Washington, too.
Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell began a hurried mission to Beijing on Sunday to smooth the way for annual talks involving Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and scores of officials.
A top White House aide Sunday said President Obama wants to strike an "appropriate balance" between advancing human rights and maintaining U.S. relations with China, the first public comments by the administration on its potential involvement.
John Brennan, Mr. Obama's counterterrorism adviser, declined to provide details on the incident or say whether the activist, Mr. Chen, might be hiding in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing as reported.
"I think in all instances the president tries to balance our commitment to human rights, making sure that the people throughout the world have the ability to express themselves freely and openly, but also that we can continue to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas," Mr. Brennan told "Fox News Sunday."
Though Mr. Chen - a self-taught legal activist described by friends and supporters as calm and charismatic - hardly seems a threat, security forces and officials have reacted angrily, detaining several of his supporters, and a nephew who fought with officials after the escape was discovered is on the run.
Among those still in custody are He Peirong, a Nanjing activist and Chen supporter who drove the blind lawyer's getaway car out of his home province of Shandong, and Guo Yushan, a Beijing scholar and rights advocate who hosted and aided Mr. Chen in the capital.
Prominent Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia, who evaded his own government minders to meet with Mr. Chen in Beijing earlier this week and posted photos of the reunion online, was taken in for questioning and held for 24 hours, returning home Sunday.
Mr. Hu's activist wife, Zeng Jinyan, was questioned for half an hour in her home by state security officers who, she said, were "very unhappy" about Mr. Chen's flight. "They were really irritated," Mrs. Zeng said. "It was a big shock for them."
Activists, journalists, diplomats and even British actor Christian Bale have tried to penetrate the heavy security that has surrounded Mr. Chen for the last 18 months, all without success. Each time, hired guards drove them back, sometimes pelting outsiders with rocks and chasing them with cars.
China's state-controlled media so far have ignored the story despite its gripping narrative and the serious implications it could have on Sino-U.S. relations.
Anything vaguely related to Mr. Chen has been blocked on Chinese social-media sites, including posts or key-word searches for Chen, Guangcheng, GC, or even the words "blind person."
The media blackout and online controls haven't prevented China's Internet-savvy activist community from learning about or celebrating Mr. Chen's escape. Overseas sites like Twitter were being used to share updates, including photos of a smiling Mr. Chen in his trademark black sunglasses reuniting with the activist couple, Mr. Hu and Mrs. Zeng.