Chen believed to be hiding out in US embassy
Astonishing details of how a blind lawyer and celebrated human rights campaigner escaped house arrest in China emerged last night as fellow dissidents said he had made his way to the safety of the American embassy in Beijing.
Chen Guangcheng, who led a campaign that revealed a policy of forced abortions and sterilisations in his native Shandong Province, was released under guard to his own home after serving four years in prison in 2010.
But after more than a year of intimidation, during which visitors were banned and he and his family -- forbidden contact with the outside world -- were beaten by party thugs for minor infringements of his house arrest, he set about making his escape.
After abandoning a plan to dig a tunnel, he used cover of darkness to climb a wall and flee his guards last Sunday night.
The dramatic details of his escape were revealed by fellow activist Hu Jia, who met and advised Mr Chen while he was on the run.
"Chen was spotted by the national security people while he was on his way to the embassy so there was a car chase, but fortunately he got there safely in the end," Mr Hu told The Sunday Telegraph.
Mr Chen had been planning his escape for some time, he said, having previously attempted to tunnel his way out of his family home in Dongshigu Village in eastern Shandong. He had pretended to be sick for several weeks in the hope that the "jailers" would let their guard down.
Mr Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, had been unable to accompany him, Mr Hu said, because she was still suffering from injuries sustained in a beating from the guards who have been outside their house for the past 20 months.
"Chen told me he had prepared for the 'prison break' for at least two months. He knew the patrolling routines of the guards by heart," said Mr Hu.
"He injured his leg when he landed and it took him 20 hours to make his way around eight roadblocks. He told me he fell over at least 200 times."
It is believed that He Peirong, a friend, drove Mr Chen to Beijing, where he spent three sleepless nights before making his break for the US embassy. Ms He was later detained at her home in Nanjing, in eastern Jiangsu Province.
Mr Chen's brother and nephew were also arrested, raising speculation that they played a part in his escape.
A self-taught legal activist who was illiterate until his 20s, Mr Chen is perhaps the best-known of China's dissidents after Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Mr Hu said it was not until Thursday afternoon that Mr Chen reached the embassy.
"He knew it would just be a matter of time before the authorities discovered he had escaped and that he would face unprecedented revenge if he was recaptured," said Mr Hu, who met Mr Chen while he was being sheltered in Beijing by activists. "We talked about the various options and finally decided that the US embassy was the only truly safe place for him since the US government was already deeply involved in his case."
His wife, mother and six-year-old daughter remained in the family home, which was surrounded by officials.
His escape was revealed to the world after Mr Chen recorded a video, addressed to China's premier Wen Jiabao, condemning the treatment of his family and accusing local Communist Party officials by name. Activists sent the video to the overseas Chinese news site Boxun.com, which posted part of it on YouTube.
US officials have refused to confirm if Mr Chen is in the embassy. Mr Hu said his friend had no desire to seek political asylum in the US: "He wants to stay in China. He thinks now is a historic moment of change in China and he wants to take his chances and be a part of it."
Last night there were unconfirmed reports that Mr Hu -- awarded the European Parliament's Human Rights Prize in 2008 and imprisoned between 2007 and 2011 -- had been detained shortly after speaking to the Sunday Telegraph. His mobile telephone appeared to have been switched off.
Whether it will be possible for Mr Chen to remain in China is doubtful, given what is likely to happen to him in Chinese custody.
His escape is a huge embarrassment for China's leaders. It also poses a problem for the US, which is seeking closer relations with China ahead of the country's change of leadership later this year.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, had repeatedly called for Mr Chen's release, and it would be seen as caving in to Chinese pressure should she agree for him to be handed over.