BEIJING — A blind legal activist who escaped house arrest in his Chinese village is under the protection of American officials, activists said Saturday, creating a diplomatic dilemma for the U.S. and China days ahead of a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Chen Guangcheng, who has exposed forced abortions and sterilizations in villages as a result of China's one-child policy, fled from his guarded home a week ago in Shandong province in eastern China. Chinese-based activists say he was driven away by supporters and then handed over to others who brought him to Beijing.
The U.S. and Chinese governments have not confirmed reports that he was at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which declined comment Saturday. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, originally due in Beijing next week, arrived early Sunday. He too did not comment to reporters.
A Texas-based activist group that has been promoting Chen's case said Saturday that he was in U.S. care and that Beijing and Washington were discussing the situation.
"Chen is under U.S. protection and high-level talks are currently under way between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen's status," said a statement from the ChinaAid Association. The group said it was in contact with a person with knowledge of the situation.
Chen's whereabouts could be a major political complication for the two countries, with Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner due to arrive in China for strategic talks that begin Thursday on global economics and topics including the violence in Sudan and maritime claims in Asia's seas.
Chen's case comes as the United States is looking for help from China on many issues around the world, such as trying to restrain North Korea and Iran on their nuclear ambitions, and pushing Syria to observe a cease-fire in the fighting in that country. Bilateral disputes over trade, China's currency and U.S. relations with Taiwan are also issues that likely will be part of the strategic talks.
ChinaAid's founder, Bob Fu, said Chen's case was a benchmark for the United States and its human rights image around the world.
"Because of Chen's wide popularity, the Obama administration must stand firmly with him or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law," he said in the statement.
"If there is a reason why Chinese dissidents revere the U.S., it is for a moment like this," Fu said.
Fu and Chinese-based activists say Chen slipped away from his closely guarded home on the night of April 22. His wife and 6-year-old daughter are still there.
Chen recorded a video as a direct address to Premier Wen Jiabao, condemning the treatment of him and his family and accusing local Communist Party officials by name. Activists sent the video Friday to the overseas Chinese news site Boxun.com, which posted part of it on YouTube.
Activist Hu Jia met with Chen after his escape and said people with Chen later called him. His wife later posted on Twitter a photo of Chen and Hu together in which the two men are smiling. Chen is wearing the same clothes seen in the video.
"They said, 'He is in a 100 percent safe place,'" Hu said. "If they say that, I know where that place is. There's only one 100 percent (safe) place in China, and that's the U.S. Embassy."
Hu's claim could not be verified. Police detained Hu for questioning Saturday afternoon and by early Sunday he had not been released, his wife, Zeng Jinyan, said on Twitter.
If Chen is in the U.S. Embassy or with U.S. officials at another location, it is not known how he would be able to leave or where he could go without Chinese permission.
Chen's escape, if ultimately successful, would boost a beleaguered civil rights community, which has faced rising arrests and other harassment over the past year.
In 1989, when Fang Lizhi, whose speeches inspired student protesters throughout the 1980s, fled with his wife to the U.S. Embassy after China's 1989 military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, he was forced to stay there for 13 months while the countries discussed his fate.
Chen's case is more complicated because his wife and daughter are still in Shandong.
Fu said Chen's case should be handled through negotiations, like Fang's, and that his family should not suffer any reprisals.
"The odds are that it will be a long negotiation and a stalemate for a time," said Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University. "China has some cards to play, starting with Chen's wife and children plus the accomplices to his escape."
Chinese media have been silent on the case, and most words related to Chen and his village have been blocked online. Chinese political analysts have declined to comment.
A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison for revealing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials confined him to his home, beating him up on several occasions.
Chen was widely admired by rights activists at home who last year campaigned to publicize his case among ordinary Chinese and encourage them to go to Dongshigu village and break the security cordon. Even Hollywood actor Christian Bale tried to visit, but was roughed up by locals.
Amnesty International and other human rights groups called on the Chinese government to ensure the safety of Chen and his family, saying they had been abused during 18 months of illegal house arrest.