NBC's Ian Williams reports.
Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng is under U.S. protection in Beijing after an audacious escape from 19 months under house arrest, a U.S.-based group said on Saturday, in a drama that threatens to ignite new tensions between the two governments.
The United States has not given any public confirmation of reports that Chen, who slipped away from under the noses of guards and bristling surveillance equipment around his village home in Shandong province, fled into the U.S. embassy.
China has also declined direct public comment on Chen's reported escape, which threatens to overshadow a two-day meeting with top Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Beijing from Thursday.
But Texas-based ChinaAid said it "learned from a source close to the Chen Guangcheng situation that Chen is under U.S. protection and high level talks are currently under way between U.S. and Chinese officials regarding Chen's status".
"Because of Chen's wide popularity, the Obama Administration must stand firmly with him or risk losing credibility as a defender of freedom and the rule of law," Bob Fu, president of the religious and political rights advocacy group that has long campaigned for Chen's freedom, said in an email to Reuters.
On Friday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, asked about the situation, told reporters: "I don’t have anything on this issue at all." There was no further update from the department early Saturday.
The New York Times reported that the situation leaves the United States "with a new diplomatic quandary as it seeks to improve its fraught relationship with Beijing".
The reports of Chen's escape come nearly three months after a Chinese official Wang Lijun fled into a U.S. consulate for over 24 hours on February 6, unleashing a scandal that has rattled the ruling Communist Party months before a once-in-a-decade leadership handover.
Wang's brief flight to the U.S. consulate led to the downfall of top official Bo Xilai who had been openly campaigning for a place in the inner circle of power in Beijing.
Pu Zhiqiang, a Beijing lawyer and rights advocate, said reliable contacts also told him Chen took refuge in U.S. embassy grounds. The incident will be another damaging blot on China's security services, following Wang's flight, said Pu.
"Everyone knew about the suffering of Chen Guangcheng and his family but nobody dared raised his head over this and ignored it," he told Reuters, referring to Chinese officials.
"Chen Guangcheng has been the most typical victim of this lawless, boundless exercise of power," said Pu. "But the day has finally come when he has escaped from it."
Chen, a self-schooled legal advocate who campaigned against forced abortions, had been held under extra-legal confinement in his village home in Linyi in eastern Shandong province since September 2010 when he was released from jail.
His confinement under relentless surveillance with his family fanned protests by Chinese sympathizers and criticism from foreign governments and groups.
Chen's escape and the furor it has unleashed could add to the headaches of China's ruling Communist Party, which is striving to ensure stability and authority before a leadership transition later this year.
It also threatens to overshadow a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who are due to visit Beijing next week for the annual "strategic and economic dialogue" between the two countries.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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