On the run … the activist Chen Guangcheng. Photo: AP
FOR weeks, Chen Guangcheng pretended to be sick.
Living under the watchful eye of the world's biggest security apparatus, his every movement closely monitored, the self-trained lawyer was hoping his jailers would drop their guard. On Sunday, they did.
Under a moonless sky, Mr 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 travelled nearly 640 kilometres 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 yesterday morning in China, Mr Chen's exact whereabouts were unknown, but friends insisted he was ''safe'' and suggested the only truly safe place for him in China was under the protection of US diplomats.
''His story,'' said friend and fellow activist Hu Jia, ''is the Chinese version of The Shawshank Redemption. ''
And just as in the movie, Mr Chen had clearly thought far ahead when plotting how to elude his captors. Soon after his disappearance became publicly known on Friday, his face was beamed around the world in a video released by a US rights group. In it, he directly addresses the Premier, Wen Jiabao.
Wearing his trademark dark glasses and speaking calmly, 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.'' Mr 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 Mr Chen's first bid for freedom, 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 $US111 billion ($107 billion) on internal security this year - $US5 billion more than the military. But Mr 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-organised and committed activists ready to take grave risks to combat what they see as intolerable injustices.
By escaping, and by perhaps placing himself under the protection of US diplomats in China, Mr 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. It also comes on the eve of a visit by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who has repeatedly called for Mr Chen's release.
Mr Chen, a prominent legal activist who infuriated party officials by rallying opposition to forced sterilisations and other aspects of China's family-planning regime, was jailed from 2006 to 2010 and then vanished into a harrowing legal twilight zone, held prisoner at his home in Shandong province by a small army of local police and hired thugs.
Chinese dissidents and friends of Mr Chen's in Beijing said the blind lawyer first tried to escape last year by digging a tunnel with his family members. But guards quickly discovered it, foiling the plan when the tunnel was only a few yards long.
After Mr Chen's escape, a friend drove him to Beijing. US officials declined to comment on Friday on reports that he was hiding at the US embassy.
Mr Chen's success in eluding police and plain-clothes security agents who blanket much of China adds another layer of mystery to a case that has long caused bafflement. His treatment violated China's laws and continued despite causing severe damage to its image and the leadership's oft-declared goal of establishing rule by law.
''How does a blind guy like this get away? It seems almost impossible,'' said John Kamm, head of Dui Hua Foundation, a group that has lobbied Chinese authorities to free jailed dissidents or improve their prison conditions. ''The hunt will now be on for those who may have helped him.''
The Washington Post