WASHINGTON — A blind Chinese dissident who escaped from house arrest is under U.S. protection, his supporters said Saturday, creating a dilemma for Washington ahead of a visit next 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 at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
But a Texas-based activist group that has promoted Chen's case said the 40-year-old dissident is "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 for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and nearby villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials had confined him to his home, despite a lack of legal grounds for doing so, and beating him on several occasions, activists said.
Chen set off a frantic police search for him and those who helped him escape from his village Sunday, and he made his way to Beijing on Friday, activists said.
In a video he recorded that was put on YouTube, Chen accused local party officials of abuse, giving names.
Between 90 and 100 people were involved in his illegal detention, he said.
People who tried to visit him, including lawyers, journalists and the actor Christian Bale, were typically surrounded by security officers and forced away.
In one instance, Chen said, more than 10 men had pinned him to the ground and beat and kicked him for four hours.
Activist Hu Jia met with Chen after his escape and said the people with Chen later called him. "They said, 'He is in a 100% safe place,'" Hu said. "If they say that, I know where that place is. There's only one 100% [safe] place in China, and that's the U.S. Embassy."
The case poses a delicate problem for American officials ahead of a high-level visit led by Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
In February, U.S. officials faced a similar quandary when the police chief in the city of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and claimed his life was at risk because of his investigation into the death of a British businessman, allegedly implicating the wife of Bo Xilai, a senior government official.
After a 36-hour standoff during which Chinese security personnel surrounded the consulate,Wang was turned over to a Chinese official from Beijing -- safeguarding him from Bo's reach. American officials reportedly debriefed him extensively about the Bo Xilai 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.
Photo: An undated image provided by ChinaAid shows blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng, right, with his family. Credit: EPA/www.ChinaAid.org