Blind Chinese dissident at U.S. Embassy in Beijing, backers say

WASHINGTON — A blind Chinese dissident who escaped from house arrest is under U.S. protection, his supporters said Saturday, creating a dilemma for Washington before a visit this week by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Chen Guangcheng, a civil rights activist who has exposed forced abortions and sterilizations in rural areas, escaped a week ago from his heavily guarded home in Shandong province in eastern China.

U.S. officials declined to comment Saturday and have not confirmed reports that he sought protection atthe U.S. Embassyin Beijing.

But a Texas-based activist group that has promoted Chen’s case said the 40-year-old dissident was “under U.S. protection.”

“High-level talks are currently underway between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen’s status,” said a statement from the ChinaAid Assn., citing a source close to the situation.

Chen, a self-taught lawyer who was blinded by fever during infancy, served four years in prison. After his release in September 2010, local officials had confined him to his home, despite a lack of legal grounds for doing so, activists said. People who tried to visit him, including lawyers, journalists and the actor Christian Bale, were typically surrounded by security officers and forced away.

Chen set off a frantic police search for him and those who helped him escape from his village April 22, and he made his way to Beijing on Friday, activists said.

The case presents a diplomatic quandary for both the U.S. and China, said Jacques deLisle, who directs the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

At the moment, neither side has acknowledged Chen’s presence at the embassy, he said, but if the situation is unresolved when Clinton visits, she will be forced to comment on it.

“Right now there are some difficult diplomatic choices to be made,” he said. But “there is some scope for ducking the issue, if both sides want to.”

For example, because Chen is not formally charged with a crime, the U.S. could seek assurances that his house arrest and harassment would end, DeLisle said.

The Chinese “are somewhat hoisted on their own petard in terms of their ability to complain” about Chen’s presence in the embassy, he said.

In February, U.S. officials faced a similar dilemma when the deputy mayor in the city of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and said his life was at risk because of his investigation of the death of a British businessman. He allegedly implicated the wife of Bo Xilai, a senior government official, in the death.

After a 36-hour standoff during which Chinese security personnel surrounded the consulate, Wang was turned over to a Chinese official from Beijing, putting him out of Bo’s reach. U.S. officials reportedly debriefed him extensively about the Bo affair, which has become a major scandal in China. He asked informally for asylum, but the U.S. ruled that out, officials have said.

But unlike Wang, a security official caught up in a local scandal, Chen is a renowned dissident whose case has been addressed publicly by Clinton on several occasions. He would be a strong candidate for asylum, experts say.

There is precedent for Chinese dissidents taking shelter at the U.S. Embassy. Astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who spoke out against the government after the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, spent a year there before Chinese officials allowed him to leave in June 1990. He died this month at 76 at his home in Tucson.