Under a moonless sky, Chen scaled a high wall and fled the darkened village where he had been confined to his home for the past year and a half, according to a version of events provided by friends. From there, he traveled nearly 400 miles to Beijing and, perhaps, to freedom.
His escape was made all the more remarkable by a simple fact: The 40-year-old Chinese dissident has been blind since childhood.
As of Saturday morning in China, Chen’s exact whereabouts were unknown, but friends insisted he was “safe” — and suggested that the only truly safe place for him in China was under the protection of U.S. diplomats.
ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian human right group, said Chen was under the protection of U.S. officials and talks were underway between U.S. and Chinese officials about his fate. The U.S. Embassy, however, maintained its silence, declining to either confirm or deny that Chen was there, with a diplomat citing the sensitivity of the situation.
“His story,” said friend and fellow activist Hu Jia, “is the Chinese version of ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ ”
And just as in the movie, Chen had clearly thought far ahead when plotting how to elude his captors. Soon after his disappearance became publicly known Friday, his face was beamed around the world in a video released by a U.S.-based rights group. In it, he directly addresses his country’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao.
Wearing his trademark dark glasses and speaking calmly into the camera, he details layers of security imposed around his tumbledown home and says that reports of abuse he suffered while under effective house arrest “are all true. And the reality is more serious than the descriptions online.” Chen says he still fears for his family. “My mother, my wife and my children are still in their clutches,” he says.
This was not Chen’s first attempt to break free, nor was it the first time he has caused international embarrassment for the Chinese government.
His flight is a severe blow to China’s vast and lavishly funded internal security system. China, according to budget figures released last month, will spend $111 billion on internal security this year — $5 billion more than the military will get. But Chen’s escape has exposed the cracks in a system that can often seem invincible. It has also highlighted the role of one of the Communist Party’s biggest irritants — a network of well-organized and committed activists ready to take grave personal risks to combat what they see as intolerable injustices.
By escaping, and by perhaps placing himself under the protection of U.S. diplomats in China, Chen has managed to place the spotlight on human rights just as Chinese authorities are reckoning with the fallout from the country’s messiest leadership struggle in decades. The action also comes on the eve of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has repeatedly called for Chen’s release.