BEIJING -- Chen Guangcheng, the blind rights lawyer who has been under extralegal house arrest in his rural village for the past 19 months, has escaped from his heavily guarded home and is in hiding in the capital, rights advocates and Chinese officials said on Friday.
American officials would not confirm reports that Mr. Chen has sought refuge in the American Embassy. A source in the Chinese Ministry of State Security said Mr. Chen was believed to be there on Friday. Previously, early Thursday evening, a Chinese analyst cited another State Security source who said that Mr. Chen had entered the embassy.
Those who have spoken to Mr. Chen say he slipped away from his captors on Sunday evening in Shandong Province, where he has been held incommunicado since his release from prison in September 2010. They said Mr. Chen was not seeking to leave China, but would try to negotiate his freedom with Chinese authorities.
"He is reluctant to go overseas and wants only to live like a normal Chinese citizen," said Bob Fu, president of China Aid, a Christian rights organization based in Texas that had been in touch with him as recently as Friday morning.
The escape would represent a significant public relations challenge to the Chinese government, which has long sought to deny reports that local officials in Dongshigu village were keeping Mr. Chen and his wife locked in their home even though there are no legal charges against him.
The case could also present a major new challenge to the United States, which was thrust into another delicate internal political dispute in China in February. At that time, Wang Lijun, a senior police official from the region of Chongqing, sought refuge in the American consulate in Chengdu, revealing details about the killing of a British businessman and setting off a cascade of events that led to the downfall of Bo Xilai, who was a member of China's Politburo.
American diplomats said they determined Mr. Wang's case did not involve national security, and they turned him over to Chinese security officials, prompting criticism in Washington about their handling of the case.
But if Mr. Chen is now on the grounds of the embassy in Beijing, Obama administration officials are likely to be far more cautious in handling his case, given that he is one of China's most internationally recognized dissidents and has been the subject of extralegal abuses in China for many years. In Washington, the White House and the State Department also declined to comment on whether Mr. Chen was at the embassy.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman on Friday said he had no information about the episode, but one Chinese intelligence officer expressed frustration and bewilderment that Mr. Chen had evaded his captors and that he might have entered the embassy.
"It's still not clear how this happened," the intelligence officer said. "Was this happenstance, or was it planned this way? Are there others planning to do the same?"
The timing is also especially inopportune given that Beijing is preparing to welcome Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and a host of other U.S. officials next week for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
It also creates headaches for Washington, which has been eager to build more constructive relations with the Chinese on a number of economic and security issues. Those efforts have lately paid dividends, with Beijing increasingly cooperative with American efforts to pressure Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs. China has also shown a willingness to support United Nations efforts to broker a cease-fire in Syria.
"This could be rather awkward," said Bonnie Glaser, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
On Friday, shortly after news of Mr. Chen's daring escape began circulating, a video appeared on YouTube, filmed in the days since he gained his freedom, in which he described life under house arrest. The video, in the form of an appeal to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, detailed the abuse he and his family suffered during their confinement and demanded that those responsible be brought to justice.
He told how his daughter was followed to school by three guards each day and how guards had kicked his wife for hours on end. "Prime Minister Wen, you owe the people an explanation," he said. "Are these atrocities the result of local officials violating the law or a result of orders from the top leadership?"
It is not the first time that Mr. Chen has sought to publicize the details of his confinement. Last year, he and his wife were reportedly severely beaten after a video they secretly recorded inside their home was smuggled out of the village and posted on the Internet. Friends say the subsequent abuse by their captors had left Mr. Chen in frail health.
A self-taught lawyer once lauded by the state media for his work defending farmers and the disabled, Mr. Chen, 40, angered local officials after taking on the case of thousands of women who had been forcibly sterilized in Linyi County. During a brief trial in 2006, he was sentenced to 51 months in jail on charges of destroying property and assembling a crowd to disrupt traffic -- charges that advocates say were trumped up given that he was under house arrest at the time.
After his release, he was taken directly to his family's stone farmhouse, which was turned into a makeshift prison. His wife, and for a time his young daughter, were also imprisoned inside the house, which was ringed by surveillance cameras, floodlights and a rotating cordon of guards equipped with walkie-talkies.
Reporters, diplomats and Chinese activists who tried to visit Mr. Chen were violently repelled by men who stood sentinel at the entrances to Dongshigu. Last December, the actor Christian Bale prompted a flurry of media coverage after he and a CNN camera crew were assaulted outside the village.
Mr. Fu of China Aid said that Mr. Chen slipped out of the house and was spirited to a safe house in Beijing by Chinese activists. Among those who helped out was He Peirong, a family friend who said Mr. Chen had planned his escape far in advance, staying in bed for long period of time to trick guards into thinking he was too sick to walk. In an account she wrote on her microblog account early Friday, Mr. He said Mr. Chen called her after fleeing the village. She said she then picked him up in her car and they drove to Beijing.
By late morning Ms He had been picked up by public security agents from her home in Nanjing, according to Mr. Fu. Her microblog account was later deleted.
Ai Weiwei, the artist and government critic who has also been subjected to residential detention, albeit far less draconian, said he had spoken to a friend who met with Mr. Chen in Beijing on Wednesday. The friend said Mr. Chen had climbed over a wall at night and evaded multiple cordons of guards. "You know he's blind, so the night to him is nothing," Mr. Ai said the friend told him. "I think that's a perfect metaphor."
Officials in Linyi County could not be reached for comment on Friday afternoon but activists described a violent confrontation between local officials and relatives of Mr. Chen as they frantically tried to track him down. When officials, including the township chief, came to take away Mr. Chen's older brother, Chen Guangfu, the man's son reportedly drew a knife and swung at the men, injuring one or more of them, including the township director.
On Thursday night, Cao Yaxue, a blogger at the Web site Seeing Red in China, recorded a conversation with the nephew, Chen Kegui, as he was waiting to surrender to police. The nephew said he attacked the men after they broke into the house and failed to identify themselves. "I was defending myself," he said through sobs. "I was not attacking. I'm not a murderer. These are my last words."
Rights advocates on Friday expressed concern for the safety of Mr. Chen and for his wife, Yuan Weijing, who was reportedly left behind. In 2009, the family of another prominent rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, escaped from residential detention in Beijing with the help of Christian activists. Mr. Gao's wife and two children traveled overland to Thailand and eventually reached the United States, where they were given asylum. Rights advocates say Mr. Gao -- who has been repeatedly tortured over the years -- had planned to go with them but was stopped by his minders. He was later given a three-year prison term for violating the terms of his probation.
Mr. Fu of China Aid said he was optimistic that Mr. Chen might be able to negotiate his freedom. "The fact that he's escaped will really shake up Chinese security forces," he said. "It tells them that they are not almighty God."
In the video posted Friday, Mr. Chen described how local officials had profited from his detention, pocketing money from the county that was meant to pay those responsible for guarding his family. At its peak, the effort employed hundreds of people, he said, some of whom were spread along roads about three miles from the village.
But he said his primary concern was the safety of those he left behind and he called on China's top leaders to guarantee that his escape would not cause them further harm. "I ask that my family be kept safe," he said.
Edward Wong, Sharon LaFraniere and Michael Wines contributed reporting and Mia Li and Shi Da contributed research.
Edward Wong contributed reporting; Mia Li and Shi Da contributed research.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.