On 22 April 2012, Chen escaped from house arrest. Fellow dissident Ai Weiwei said a friend told him that Chen waited until night, climbed over his compound walls, and slipped past "multiple cordons of guards". "You know he's blind, so the night to him is nothing," Ai's friend stated. Chen's friend and fellow activist Hu Jia stated that Chen had been planning escape "for a long time", and had previously attempted to dig a tunnel for escape, but failed. In the weeks leading up to his escape, Chen tried to create the impression among his guards that he had stopped appearing outside the house by day, allowing him multiple days to climb over the walls around his compound before his absence was discovered.
Chen Guangcheng's supporters stated that he was safe in Beijing at an undisclosed location. Hu stated that Chen was given refuge at the U.S. Embassy, which the Embassy refused to confirm or deny.According to supporters, Chen was not attempting to leave China, but was hoping to negotiate with authorities "to live like a normal Chinese citizen". The New York Times described the reports that the U.S. Embassy was sheltering Chen as a "diplomatic quandary" at a time when the U.S. was seeking to improve relations with China.
On the same day, Chen posted a video to YouTube, in which he expressed his concern that the authorities would carry out "insane retribution" on his family and made three demands of Premier Wen Jiabao: 1) that local officials who allegedly assaulted his family be prosecuted; 2) that his family's safety be guaranteed; and 3) that the Chinese government prosecute corruption cases under the law. Chen's brother, Chen Guangfu, and nephew, Chen Kegui, were reportedly both arrested in Dongshigu on suspicions of aiding his escape. Amnesty International called on China to guarantee the safety of Chen, his family, and his friends, stating, "It is time for this shameful saga to end.
The escape came only weeks after the Bo Xilai incident, in which a former Communist Party boss was removed from office in a corruption scandal, leading BBC News to describe it as "an unwelcome time for China's leaders" to face further embarrassment. Within twenty-four hours, Chen's name as well as the phrases "CGC" and "the blind man" had been blocked by Chinese online censors in an effort to quell Internet discussion of the case. As of 27 April, Chinese state media had not carried "a single line of news" about the escape.