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In China, a blind activist has made an audacious escape. He had been under house arrest. Now it's not clear where he is. All that is known is that he is in hiding and safe, though the same cannot be said for his family or his fellow activists, as NPR's Lisa Lim reports.

CHRISTIAN BALE: Why can I not go visit this man?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hollywood actor Christian Bale is used to action...

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: When actor Christian Bale tried to visit Chen Guangcheng in December, he was assaulted by local thugs. Dozens of these men have guarded Chen's house in Linyi, in eastern China, day and night for the past year and a half. But somehow, five days ago, the blind lawyer slipped out, evading the all-seeing security. Supporters drove him to Beijing. He's released a video saying he is safe, but giving no details of his whereabouts. He asks China's Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate his family's brutal beatings.

CHEN GUANGCHENG: (Through Translator) This case is too inhumane and damages our party's image. Dozens of men broke into my house and beat my wife up. They held her down on the floor and covered her with a quilt, then they punched and kicked her for several hours. They also beat me violently.

LIM: Chen is a blind, self-taught lawyer who exposed forced abortions by local officials. He served four years in prison for damaging property and disrupting traffic. After being released, his own house effectively became his new jail. In the video, Chen describes how security agents accompany his six-year-old daughter to school every day and search her schoolbag. He voices fears of insane retribution against his family. He says local officials made money from guarding him, so had no incentive to solve his case.

GUANGCHENG: (Through Translator) At a local level, they don't want to deal with my case. Those who make policy don't want to solve it, since they fear their crimes will be exposed. And those who implement it are absolutely corrupt.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CONVERSATION)

LIM: Those fears of reprisal are justified, as shown by this panicked phone call made by his nephew, Chen Kegui. It was recorded by an activist in the early hours of the morning. Chen Kegui describes panic in the village after the lawyer's disappearance was discovered. Dozens of men, he says, attacked him and his father. He describes a bloody fight and he admits to stabbing his attackers.

CHEN KEGUI: (Through Translator) They hit my head with really big sticks. I had to fight back. But they saw I was not scared, so they left. I'm afraid of being captured by them and being beaten to death.

LIM: Now a local government website says Chen Kegui has fled and is being sought by police.

An activist, He Peirong, who helped the lawyer get away, has now been detained, according to Bob Fu, a U.S.-based activist for China Aid. Fu says the symbolism of the lawyer's escape is striking.

BOB FU: He wants to make his voice heard by walking out of his own home (unintelligible) the tight security and surveillance, he sent a strong message that Chinese securities are not almighty god, you know.

LIM: In the past, Chen has had high-level support, including from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But any asylum attempt would likely lead to a major diplomatic row. And Chen's position is very vulnerable.

NICOLAS BEQUELIN: What make Chen's case so difficult for the authorities is that he has become the poster boy of the activist lawyers who are fighting for ordinary citizens' rights.

LIM: Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch. He says this escape will likely not improve the human rights landscape.

BEQUELIN: The parallel here, I think, would be when Liu Xiaobo got the Nobel Peace Prize, there was a moment of fleeting joy among human rights activists. That was followed by one of the harshest crackdown against the human rights community in years.

LIM: China's leaders are struggling to contain the fallout from the downfall of a powerful politician, Bo Xilai, whose wife is suspected of murder. With a slowing economy and a major political crisis, China's coming transition of power is looking shakier than it did a few months ago. This new spotlight on human rights violations can only further unsettle the government.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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