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Seeking Refuge, Blind Chinese Activist Flees



It's been more than a day now since news broke of a blind Chinese dissident's dramatic escape from house arrest. It's now thought that Chen Guangcheng secretly traveled 300 miles to the capital, Beijing, and is being sheltered on the grounds of the U.S. embassy there.

NPR's Beijing bureau chief is Louisa Lim, and she joins me now from there. Louisa, first off, is it clear that he is actually on embassy grounds?

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: A number of sources are saying that he is indeed under U.S. protection, possibly in the embassy itself, but we haven't had any official confirmation of that yet. Neither the Chinese nor the U.S. have said anything at all about Chen Guangcheng. But a U.S.-based organization ChinaAid said today that high-level negotiations are going on about his fate between China and the U.S.

And I also spoke to another activist called Hu Jia who actually saw Chen Guangcheng in the last few days while he was hiding in Beijing. And he also believes that Chen is in the embassy. And he gave me some interesting new details about Chen's dramatic escape. You've got to remember this is a man who's completely blind and whose house was surrounded by maybe 70, 80 guards, and he managed to get away undercover of night. He climbed a wall that hurt his leg quite badly jumping down, managed to evade the guards because of his very cute sense of hearing.

And I was told that Chen took 20 hours to get out of danger. During which time, he fell over maybe 200 times, and his legs were absolutely covered with bruises. But he did finally meet a supporter who drove him to Beijing and to safety.

RAZ: Remind us a little, Louisa, who he is and why he is so well-known in the West.

LIM: Well, Chen Guangcheng is one of China's most high-profile dissidents. And his case is a reminder of the very worst kind of human rights abuses that do still happen in China. He's a self-taught lawyer, and he angered local officials in Shandong Province where he lives by exposing forced abortions there. He was put in jail in 2006 for four years on trumped-up charges, charges of damaging property and organizing a crowd to disrupt traffic. And ever since he was released, he's been basically held a prisoner in his own home. His family have been treated very brutally indeed, beaten up several times.

And in the latest video, which he released since escaping, he talked about how his imprisonment had actually benefited the whole local economy since so many local people were being paid so much to guard him. So it painted a very shocking picture at the local areas, basically little more than a mafia state.

RAZ: How does the U.S. handle this diplomatically?

LIM: We still haven't had confirmation that he is there, but there is a precedent. Back in 1989, a very famous dissident called Fang Lizhi actually took shelter in the U.S. embassy, and it caused a huge diplomatic row. He actually spent a year in the U.S. embassy in Beijing before being allowed to leave.

I mean, this case could be more complicated. Still, (unintelligible), Chen has told friends he doesn't want to leave China, but the other issue is that he still has family members in the village. And we're hearing from various sources at least seven of those met family members have been detained. And even two of the supporters who helped him escape have been detained, and even Hu Jia who I spoke to earlier today was taken away for the questioning several hours after that. So the Chinese authorities could use these people as bargaining chips.

RAZ: Louisa, Secretary Clinton is scheduled to visit Beijing next week. Presumably, this is going to be very, very awkward if this is still going on when she arrives.

LIM: Oh, yes. I mean, the timing could hardly be more awkward. It's the strategic and economic dialogue. And she's coming with a host of high-level officials. And she herself actually mentioned Chen Guangcheng in an official speech back in November. So it would be difficult for the U.S. to turn its back on him now. But at the same time, this would likely lead to a very bitter diplomatic row that neither side really wants.

RAZ: That's NPR's Beijing bureau chief Louisa Lim. Louisa, thank you so much.

LIM: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.