DONGSHIGU, China, April 29, 2012 (AFP) – As the daring escape from house arrest of Chinese rights activist Chen Guangcheng makes world headlines, locals in his village expressed disbelief that “the blind man” could flee the intense security surrounding him.
Farmers and entrepreneurs in the farming community of Dongshigu in east China’s Shandong province were surprised when told Chen may have fled into the US embassy in Beijing, spurring a diplomatic crisis with Washington.
“I have not heard anything about the blind man escaping, there is no way he could escape,” a local farmer who regularly passes by the village told AFP.
“They (the authorities) built a concrete wall around his home. They have surveillance cameras all around the house. It is impossible for him to escape.”
The farmer, who AFP is not identifying out of safety concerns, said dozens of security guards surrounded Chen’s home night and day, threatening and beating any outsiders who attempted to approach.
China Aid, a group run by former Tiananmen Square democracy activist Bob Fu, said Saturday it had learned from a “source close to the Chen Guangcheng situation” that the activist was now “under US protection”.
“High-level talks are currently under way between US and Chinese officials regarding Chen’s status,” the group said in a statement, which also called on the United States to ensure the safety of the activist and his family.
The United States has expressed concern about Chen, who has been blind since childhood, but refused any comment on his whereabouts, underscoring the huge sensitivity of the issue.
Outspoken government critic Hu Jia, who is close to Chen, also told AFP the activist is likely holed up in the US embassy.
A decision to grant him refuge could prove a major diplomatic irritant, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner due in Beijing Thursday for annual talks on the often testy relationship between the two countries.
Chen, 40, won worldwide acclaim for exposing forced sterilisations and late-term abortions under China’s “one child” policy, and for using his legal knowledge to help people battle a range of other perceived injustices.
He and his family were put under round-the-clock house arrest after he completed a four-year jail sentence in September 2010. He has said he was being punished for defiantly continuing to speak out.
“They have a lot of local police, traffic police and village security guards watching him. Over 60 people watching one blind man day and night. There is no way he can escape,” a shop owner near Dongshigu village told AFP.
“I’ve heard it cost over 10,000 yuan ($1,600) to guard him for one night, they also have to guard him during the day. To think that this has been going on for over two years. There are a lot of better ways to spend that money.”
China Aid said Chen slipped away from his closely guarded home on the night of April 22. His wife and 6-year-old daughter are believed to be still in the home.
After his daring escape, Chen recorded a video directly addressing Premier Wen Jiabao, accusing local Communist Party officials by name and condemning the government for their treatment of him and his family.
“They are doing this (persecution) because the blind man is a rights defender. He is in trouble for defending human rights,” the manager of a small hotel in a village near Dongshigu told AFP.
Most ordinary people here supported Chen’s efforts to curb abuse of the birth control policy and were appalled at the government’s treatment of him, she said.
Meanwhile many believe Chen’s efforts have had an impact on implementation of the controversial family planning policy.
“In the last few years, the policy has not been so strict,” the woman, who is in her forties, said.
“They don’t dare beat you anymore if you violate the policy. They still fine you, but they don’t beat you like before.”
Chen’s flight came two months after Wang Lijun, former right-hand man of disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai, went to the US consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu and reportedly sought US asylum.
He was turned down, but the incident was highly embarrassing for Beijing and provoked a major political crisis, with just months to go before a key handover of power in China.
The last Chinese dissident known to have been granted refuge at the US embassy was Fang Lizhi, a key figure in the pro-democracy movement who spent a year under US protection after publicly supporting the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
He was forced into exile in 1990 and died in the United States earlier this month.