BEIJING Chinese played cat and mouse with the censors on the popular Twitter-like microblog service Weibo on Sunday to express support for escaped blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng, while China maintained its silence on what has happened to him.
Neither China nor the United States has commented on whether Chen has sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy, as activists and one diplomat contend, in a drama that threatens to overshadow a two-day Sino-U.S. meeting in Beijing from Thursday, though both sides say the meeting will proceed as scheduled.
China's po-faced guardians of what can and cannot be said online were having their work cut out, moving quickly to block Weibo searches for the words "blind man", which had previously been commonly employed to discuss matters related to Chen. They later blocked the words for embassy.
Unbowed, and reflecting Chen's status as something of a cult hero for many in China for his brash taking on of abuse of power, many Chinese are using word play and innuendo to skirt the restrictions, as they often do for sensitive news.
"Just amazing! It's true, the blind lawyer has been saved," wrote "Sikeyadi", whose profile picture is of a man wearing dark glasses behind bars. "The light of freedom burns strong, and those dog officials must be run out of the country."
"The achievements of this blind lawyer lead me to say in a bold and assured manner that in China we have truly dauntless men," added "sporadicspor".
"I'm really hoping that the blind lawyer will now finally get some justice," wrote "HF big wind".
Criticism of the United States on Weibo was mostly focused on its support for the Philippines, currently engaged in a stand-off with China over disputed atols in the South China Sea.
Chen, a self-schooled legal advocate who campaigned against abortions forced under China's "one child" policy, had been held under extra-legal confinement in his village home in Linyi since September 2010 when he was released from jail.
His confinement with his family under relentless surveillance and sporadic beatings fanned protests by Chinese sympathizers and criticism from foreign governments and groups.
Despite China's relentless campaign against "rumors" and other supposedly subversive content online, aimed particularly at microblogs, users have become adept at skirting these limitations, as the Chen drama shows.
One popular expression used to jump what is commonly termed "the Great Firewall of China" is "going into the light", a play both on his escape and also on the middle character of Chen's name, which means "light".
"Going into the light - this is a tragic story about freedom and promise," wrote "Dai Xiaoyao".
But "Bumping into the spring dragon" wondered when even this seemingly innocuous word would be banned: "Will 'going into the light' also become a sensitive phrase?"
The more literary inclined have another option for discussing Chen - typing in the traditional Chinese characters used in Hong Kong and Taiwan which were replaced by the Communist Party with a simplified script after they took power.
China's censors tend not to look for traditional Chinese as it is not taught at school and not officially sanctioned by the government, the assumption being people either don't use it or perhaps can no longer read it fluently.
"Let's not talk about how this is a country ruled by law until the blind lawyer is finally freed," "Carlos24" wrote in traditional Chinese.
Others shared a photograph of several pairs of dark sunglasses piled on top of each other, with a caption reading: "Wear sunglasses, write a song for the blind lawyer".
"Does this blind lawyer really constitute a national security threat?" wondered "Rice dog".
(Editing by Brian Rhoads and Nick Macfie)