China, U.S. are likely bargaining over missing blind activist Chen Guangcheng

(CBS News) BEIJING - Despite speculation that missing Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng has found refuge in the U.S. embassy, there's no official word from either side.

The situation has complicated the prospects of a coming visit to China by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

CBS News correspondent Celia Hatton reports that Chen Guangcheng is one of China's most wanted men, and he could be hiding in the most sensitive place: the American Embassy in Beijing. The blind legal activist escaped house arrest last Sunday, and there is no official confirmation of his whereabouts.

Illiterate until he was 20, Chen gained fame as a self-taught lawyer, fighting government corruption. His biggest case was a lawsuit against the use of forced abortions to uphold China's one-child policy. The 40-year-old's outspoken ways landed him four years in jail, then 19 months of house arrest with his wife and family.

Hired thugs frequently beat Chen and his wife, with their six-year-old child as a witness. Two months ago, Chen and his wife agreed he needed to escape, even trying - and failing - to dig a tunnel to freedom.

Then, somehow, Chen connected with a network of activists and possibly a compassionate guard. Last Sunday night, Chen made his getaway. He walked for hours, apparently alone, evading three rings of guards. His contact, He Peirong, then drove him 300 miles to Beijing.

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When safe, Chen released an internet plea for help from China's Premier, Wen Jiabao: "My family is still in the guards' evil hands. My escape will make them worse."

Chen's accomplices are already paying a heavy price. His driver, He Peirong, was taken away by police after talking about her role on China's version of Twitter. Others who sheltered Chen in Beijing have also disappeared into detention.

"There's a growing number of people inside China who are willing to take extraordinary risks to try to make the government answer to them and function in the way it should," said Sophie Richardson with Human Rights Watch.

Chinese and U.S. diplomats are now believed to be bargaining over Chen's fate, though he has his own demands.

He does not want to go into exile, says activist Zeng Jinyan. He wants to stay in China to continue with his work.

He might not have a choice. The U.S. is likely bargaining for Chen and his family to go to the United States.

Two months ago, corrupt police official, Wang Lijun, was reportedly denied asylum at the US consulate in Chengdu, western China, so perhaps American diplomats have some goodwill with China on this front.

CBS News correspondent Whit Johnson reports Chen's possible presence in the U.S. embassy or other American facility comes at a delicate diplomatic moment.

  • Celia Hatton

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