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China censors 'Shawshank' as Clinton heads to Beijing amid dissident drama

U.S. relations with China are being put to the test over the fate of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who escaped from house arrest in China and is believed to be in the U.S. embassy or another safe site. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to Beijing late Monday for a high-stakes meeting, China blocked Web searches of terms related to blind activist Chen Guangcheng including "Shawshank Redemption," the prison-break film being compared to his case.

The drama over the dissident, who according to NBC News sources is holed-up under U.S. protection in Beijing, threatens to overshadow this week's top-level talks between the two governments.

In a further complication, the activist is seeking to remain in China and continue his campaign for reform rather than living in exile -- creating a dilemma for Clinton and adding to tension between the world's two biggest economies. 

Chen fled house arrest in eastern China a week ago with the help of supporters, slipping out under the noses of dozens of guards and into Beijing, dissident Hu Jia and other activists have said.

Blind Chinese activist escapes from house arrest

Such is the sensitivity surrounding the issue that neither country has made any official comment or even confirmed Chen’s whereabouts.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, searches for Chen's name and the Chinese terms for "Shawshank", "blind person", "embassy", and Chen's home village of Dongshigu were all blocked on Sina Weibo, China's leading microblogging service.

A blind human rights activist is said to be under the protection of the U.S. after escaping house arrest in China last week.

Also blocked was "UA898", a United Airlines direct flight from Beijing to Washington, apparently after Web users speculated online about the possibility Chen would gain U.S. asylum, the newspaper reported.

NBC sources: Blind activist is under US protection

Chen's audacious escape from house arrest, under the watch of the world's largest domestic security apparatus, was a "miracle" of planning and endurance, said Guo Yushan, a Beijing-based researcher and rights advocate who has campaigned for Chen and helped bring him to the Chinese capital after his escape. 

But he said the 40-year-old, self-taught lawyer wants to stay in China and campaign for reform. 

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"He was adamant that he would not apply for political asylum with any country. He certainly wants to stay in China, and demand redress for the years of illegal persecution in Shandong and continue his efforts for Chinese society," said Guo on Monday, speaking in his first long interview since he was released from days of police questioning. 

The New York Times reported that analysts characterized the diplomatic situation surrounding Chen as "fiendishly difficult to resolve."

Behind The Wall: Video reveals blind Chinese activist's plight

Chen, who campaigned against forced abortions as part of family planning, was confined to his village home in the eastern province of Shandong since September 2010, after release from jail on charges he rejected as spurious. 

President Barack Obama nudged China to improve its human-rights record, saying the two countries' relationship "will be that much stronger and China will be that much more prosperous and strong as you see improvements on human rights issues in that country". 

But at a news conference, he walked a fine line between not saying anything that would make it harder to resolve Chen's case while conveying U.S. concern for human rights and appreciation for wider cooperation with China. 

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