- Associated Press - Sunday, April 29, 2012

BEIJING (AP) — 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 against coercive family planning, is a challenge for China’s authoritarian government and, if it’s confirmed 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 his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner; and scores of officials.

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 activistHu 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 a half-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 past 18 months, all without success. Each time, hired guards drove them back, sometimes pelting outsiders with rocks and chasing them with cars.

For China’s human rights defenders, Mr. Chen’s successful dash to freedom was as welcome as it was unlikely.

Ai Xiaoming, a documentary filmmaker based in south China’s Guangzhou, said Mr. Chen’s escape has had the biggest emotional impact on Chinese rights advocates since jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago.

“There are many people now drinking toasts to him for the way he broke through his captivity, his difficulties, and pursued freedom,” Ms. Ai said. “It’s what we all want for ourselves in our hearts. Chen Guangcheng is an example to us. If a blind person can break out of the darkness to freedom, then everyone can.”

Ms. Ai said Mr. Chen’s hardships have been unique but his aspirations for a more open society with greater legal protections are shared by many.

“We have jails inside ourselves that make us worry that we will be punished if we speak our minds because this society doesn’t respect the rule of law and doesn’t fully protect freedom of speech,” she said. “Chen Guangcheng is a model, and he has shown us that we can break away from those fears.”

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 including 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 such as 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.

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