(CBS/AP) BEIJING - Rights advocate Chen Guangcheng says the Chinese government has quietly promised him it will investigate abuses he and his family suffered at the hands of local authorities, in a rare instance of Beijing bowing to demands of an activist.
Beijing's apparent willingness to look into Chen's complaints is another sign that his gambit late last month when the blind activist fled house arrest in his home town for the U.S. Embassy and set off a diplomatic tussle has succeeded in getting high officials to address his concerns.
Chen said an official from a central government bureau that handles citizens complaints has visited him in his Beijing hospital three times, including to take a statement last Thursday.
"After he took my statement, he said they would launch an investigation as long as there are facts, and that if there are facts about the illegal actions, then the issue definitely would be openly addressed," Chen told The Associated Press in an interview.
Chen said it remained to be seen how seriously Beijing would probe abuses by township and county officials, which date back to 2005 after Chen angered local authorities by documenting forced late-term abortions and sterilizations in his rural community.
"Will the investigation be thorough? That's hard to say, so we'll have to keep monitoring," Chen said.
The State Bureau of Letters and Calls, as the complaints office is known, did not respond. A man who answered the phone at the duty office of the bureau refused to provide a contact number for officials who handle media requests.
But even a preliminary investigation shows the extraordinary amount of attention Chen's case is getting. An estimated hundreds of thousands of ordinary Chinese present petitions every year and only a fraction bring action.
"Now that they have made the promise, I will ask them to take it into action," Chen later told Reuters in an interview.
Chen served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges and was then kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother. Chen has described how besides assaulting him, officials would also beat up his wife and mother, at one point chasing his wife on the road, pulling her from a vehicle and then hitting her. His daughter was also subject to searches and harassment.
The mistreatment has often seemed extreme and personal, exposing the impunity local officials believe they have and Beijing's unwillingness or inability to do anything about it.
For all its power, the authoritarian government relies on local officials to enforce policies so Beijing must be careful not to alienate them. However, with Chen's case now an international issue, Beijing is either feeling compelled to act or it is seizing the opportunity to get rid of local officials it dislikes.
Unless a case becomes "a big issue or crisis for them, even though they may or may not like what the local authorities are doing, they don't have a lot of reason to try to intervene," said Dali Yang, a political scientist and faculty director at the University of Chicago Center in Beijing. "They don't want to be seen as undermining local authorities because the local authorities, in doing something sometimes excessively, is also doing the bidding of the central government in maintaining stability."
In a sign that the government doesn't want Chen's case to set a precedent or encourage others, Beijing has not publicized its meetings with the activist, and coverage by the domestic media, nearly all of which is state-owned, has been limited to dispatches by the official Xinhua News Agency and editorials criticizing the U.S.
Though Chen, his wife and two children are in the hospital under arrangements that may see them leave for the U.S. soon, others in his family remain at risk. Chen's nephew has reportedly been detained after a clash he had with officials following the activist's escape from house arrest.
Chen said in his talks with the visiting official that he also conveyed his wish that the guards stationed in his home and village by the local authorities be removed. He also told the official he is entrusting the hospital to handle the paperwork for his travel documents, he said.
Chen and his supporters have tried to draw attention to his mistreatment for years. After Chen escaped from arrest in his rural home in Shandong province on April 22, he stayed in hiding in Beijing for several days during which he recorded a detailed account of the abuse and his tormentors.
"I felt I had to break away from the situation back then as my problem was extremely difficult to solve," Chen told Reuters in an interview. "Although they threatened me many times in last year that I would be dead if I walked out of the yard, I thought over and over again that I didn't have a second choice but to escape."
In the recorded video account, Chen named Zhang Jian, deputy party secretary in charge of politics and law of the township that oversees Chen's village, as well as five other officials from several different departments, as being among his persecutors.
"More than a dozen men broke into my house to beat up my wife. They pushed my wife down on the floor, covered her with a quilt, and beat and kicked her for several hours," he said in one example.
In the video, Chen appealed to Premier Wen Jiabao to punish authorities in the city of Linyi, saying that they sent 70 to 80 officials from county police, the local branch of the Communist Party and administrative agencies to his home "to loot and beat and harm us."
He urged the premier to act in part to make clear whether the violations were the acts of local officials or ordered by the central government.
Chen has told U.S. Embassy officials and his lawyer, Li Jinsong, about the visits from the official. American officials have previously said that Chinese government staffers had begun talking to Chen about his mistreatment by officials in his home province, but had no further comment on Tuesday.
Li welcomed the government's inquiry but said it would take time.
"Justice is often late, but it will not be absent," Li told the AP.