Chinese and U.S. officials may make a decision soon on the future of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from house arrest in the eastern province of Shandong last week and is believed to be under U.S. protection in Beijing, a U.S.-based rights group said.
However, Chinese netizens are largely being kept in the dark over the unfolding diplomatic drama, which comes after a daring escape aided by Chen's network of supporters in which the dissident was injured in 'more than 200 falls,' according to fellow activists.
"Right now, high-level officials from the U.S. and China are holding discussions [about Chen]," said Bob Fu, founder and director of the ChinaAid Christian rights group.
"[Chen] is under the protection of U.S. diplomats right now," Fu told RFA's Mandarin service on Sunday.
He added: "According to my understanding, the governments and their leaders have already put measures in place, and there should be a decision announced publicly very soon."
Chinese Internet censors have added Chen's name and any related search terms to a list of banned keywords, according to a survey by the U.S.-based China Digital Times website.
Also banned were searches for "UA898" following rumors that Chen had already boarded a United Airlines flight to Washington, D.C.; "pearl" or "zhen + zhu" for detained fellow activist He Peirong, known by her online nickname @pearlher; and "Shawshank Redemption," after netizens circulated a cartoon about Chen's escape, based on an image from that movie.
Fu said Chen was very concerned for the safety of his wife and other family members following his dramatic escape in the small hours of April 22 from his home in Shandong's Dongshigu village, where he had been held under close guard since his release from jail in September 2010.
He said U.S. officials would likely press for Chen to be reunited with Yuan Weijing and the couple's young daughter, Chen Kesi.
"His family are going to enter a very difficult time in their lives," Fu said.
He said the success of the talks depended on whether Beijing was willing to meet Chen's demands, made in a video message to premier Wen Jiabao, that the ruling Chinese Communist Party discipline those responsible for abuses of his family's rights, and give them back their freedom.
"I think that if they can satisfy those demands, then [Chen] would still prefer to stay in his homeland," Fu said.
Police moved to detain Chen's brother and nephew shortly after his escape, along with Nanjing-based rights activist He Peirong, who drove him part of the way to Beijing on April 22. There has been no news of their whereabouts.
U.S. Embassy officials have repeatedly declined to comment either on Chen's situation or on the content of talks involving Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who arrived in Beijing at the weekend.
Chen's escape comes at a sensitive time for both governments, who begin annual strategic and economic talks on Thursday aimed at maintaining a stable relationship in the face of trade disputes, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and international diplomatic issues like Syria, Iran and North Korea.
Chen's video address on Friday did not contain any reference to exile or political asylum, but seemed focused on demands for protection and justice for himself and his family. Sources close to Chen also said they doubted he would go willingly into exile.
In it, he called on Wen to investigate the beatings, harassment and other mistreatment he, his wife and daughter suffered at the hands of local officials during 20 months of house arrest.
Fu called on Beijing to respond to Chen's video requests. "They could make an example of his case to promote the rule of law," he said. "But exile would be an option if the Chinese government decided to take a very extreme approach to Chen and his family."
Since his escape, Chen has met with old friend and fellow activist Hu Jia, who has since been questioned by state security police. Hu's estranged wife Zeng Jinyan also tweeted that she had received a phone call from them, requesting "a chat."
Repeated calls to Zeng's phone went unanswered on Monday. Fu said state security police were calling in a number of Chen's friends and associates, warning them not to get involved.
"The handful of people who have seen him are all being summoned [for questioning] now," Fu said. "Some have been warned against saying anything publicly."
"I haven't been able to get in touch with Zeng Jinyan; it seems she is under a huge amount of pressure [from them]," he said. "Some of them are being followed."
Nanjing-based online activist "Nukangerdai" said state security police had paid a call on him on Friday. "There were two of them, and we 'drank tea.' They knew He Peirong had been detained, so I asked them if she was safe, and they said she was safe."
"I have been in touch with a bunch of He Peirong's Nanjing friends in recent days, and none of them has heard from her," he said.
ChinaAid called in a statement on its website on Friday for Chen to be treated in a similar manner to late dissident physicist Fang Lizhi, who was allowed to travel to the U.K. after he sought asylum in the U.S. embassy following the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square.
Fang and his wife later moved to the U.S., where he died earlier this month, aged 76.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.