BEIJING — A blind legal activist fled house arrest in his rural China village and made it to a secret location in Beijing on Friday, setting off a frantic police search for him and those who helped him, activists said.
U.S. officials would not comment on unconfirmed reports that Chen Guangcheng had sought protection at the U.S. Embassy — a delicate prospect as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top officials visit China next week for the latest round of the two powers' Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
Activists described an improbable escape, saying Chen slipped away from his intensely guarded home on Sunday night, was driven away by activists and then transferred to others who brought him to Beijing.
Chen also 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 the people with Chen later called him. "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 place in China, and that's the U.S. Embassy." Claims of Chen's location could not be verified.
Hu's wife, Zeng Jinyan, posted a photo Friday on Twitter of Chen and Hu together. Chen is wearing the same clothes he wore in the video. Both men are smiling.
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.
But Chen's flight unleashed a police crackdown on his relatives and the people who helped him flee, activists said.
"I am now free. But my worries have not ended yet," Chen said in his video. Speaking to a camera in a room with an off-white curtain drawn behind him, he said, "My escape might ignite a violent revenge against my family."
A self-taught lawyer blinded by fever in infancy, Chen served four years in prison for exposing forced abortions and sterilizations in his and surrounding villages. Since his release in September 2010, local officials confined him to his home, despite the lack of legal grounds for doing so, beating him up on several occasions.
Chen was widely admired by rights activists at home who — led by blogger He Peirong — 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 as with many others he was roughed up by locals paid to keep outsiders away.
Why activists spirited Chen to Beijing was not immediately known.
Though China's most policed city, Beijing is home to foreign embassies that could provide asylum. Chen's mistreatment has often seemed to be a vendetta by local officials, and perhaps Chen and his helpers thought a direct appeal to the central leadership would help.
The escape threatens to unleash a new wave of negative publicity for the authoritarian government when top leaders are already dealing with the fallout from the toppling of a former powerful politician, cashiered amid allegations of corruption, murder and abuse of power.
Online rumors and unconfirmed reports said Chen had sought protection at the U.S. or another foreign embassy. The U.S. Embassy and State Department declined comment on those reports and on Chen's current status. "We have expressed concern in the past about this case. I don't have anything current about this issue today," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing in Washington.
China's Foreign Ministry and police and government officials in Chen's home town either refused comment or did not answer telephone calls.