Alexa Olesen

BEIJING: The surprising escape of a blind legal activist from house arrest to the presumed custody of U.S. diplomats is buoying China’s embattled dissident community even as the government lashes out, detaining those who helped him and squelching mention of his name on the Internet.

The flight of Chen Guangcheng, a campaigner for disabled rights and against coercive family planning, is a challenge for China’s authoritarian government and, if it’s confirmed he is in U.S. custody, for Washington, too. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell began a hurried mission to Beijing on Sunday to smooth the way for annual talks involving his boss, Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and scores of officials.

Though Chen — a self-taught legal activist described by friends and supporters as calm and charismatic — hardly seems a threat, security forces have reacted angrily, detaining several of his supporters.

Police showed up at the home of veteran activists Zeng Jinyan and Hu Jia, who met with Chen last week while he was hiding in Beijing. Police took Hu away Saturday for 24 hours. They questioned Zeng for about a half-hour at home, sounding, she said, “very unhappy” about Chen’s flight.

“They were really irritated,” Zeng said.

Ai Xiaoming, a documentary film maker based in southern Guangzhou city, said Chen’s escape has had the biggest emotional impact on Chinese rights advocates since jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago.

“There are many people now drinking toasts to him for the way he broke through his captivity, his difficulties, and pursued freedom,” said Ai. “It’s what we all want for ourselves in our hearts. Chen Guangcheng is an example to us. If a blind person can break out of the darkness to freedom, then everyone can.”

China’s state-controlled media have so far ignored the story despite its gripping narrative and the serious implications it could have on Sino-U.S. relations. Anything vaguely related to Chen has been blocked on Chinese social media sites, such as posts including or key word searches for Chen, Guangcheng, GC, or even the words “blind person.”

The media blackout and online controls haven’t prevented China’s Internet savvy activist community from learning about or celebrating Chen’s escape. After state television aired a rerun Saturday of the American prison break film Shawshank Redemption, some gleefully tweeted that it was an indirect nod to Chen. Shawshank Redemption became a banned search term.

Chen’s whereabouts have yet to be confirmed; activists have said he is either under U.S. protection or in the U.S. Embassy.

Chen’s escape comes as the Chinese leadership is already reeling, trying to heal divisions over the ousting of a powerful politician, Bo Xilai, and complete a once-a-decade transition to a new generation of leaders. As in Chen’s case, the United States is implicated: Bo’s ouster was precipitated by the sudden flight of an aide to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.