NEW YORK — A blind Chinese legal activist who was suddenly allowed to leave the country arrived in the U.S. on Saturday, ending a nearly monthlong diplomatic tussle that tested U.S.-China relations.
Chen Guangcheng had been hurriedly taken from a hospital hours earlier and put on a plane for the U.S. after Chinese authorities told him to pack and prepare to leave. He arrived Saturday evening at Newark Liberty International Airport and was whisked to New York City, where he will be staying.
Dressed in a white shirt and khaki pants and using crutches, his right leg in a cast, Chen was greeted with cheers when he arrived at the apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village where he will live with his family. The complex houses faculty and graduate students of New York University, where Chen is expected to attend law school.
“For the past seven years, I have never had a day’s rest,” he said through a translator. “So I have come here for reparation in body and spirit.”
Chen urged the crowd to fight for justice, and thanked the U.S. and Chinese governments, and the embassies of Switzerland, Canada and France.
“After much turbulence, I have come out of Shandong,” he said, referring to the province where he was under house arrest.
The departure of Chen, 40, his wife and two children to the U.S. marked the end of nearly a month of uncertainty and years of mistreatment by local authorities for the self-taught activist.
After seven years of prison and house arrest, Chen made a daring escape from his rural village in April and was given sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy, triggering a diplomatic standoff over his fate. With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing for annual high-level discussions, officials struck a deal that let Chen walk free, only to see him have second thoughts. That forced new negotiations that led to an agreement to send him to the U.S. to study law, a goal of his, at New York University.
His concerns, he said, included whether authorities would retaliate for his negotiated departure by punishing his relatives left behind. It also was unclear whether the government will allow him to return.
Chen’s expected attendance at NYU comes from his association with Jerome Cohen, a law professor there who advised Chen while he was in the U.S. Embassy. The two met when Chen came to the U.S. on a State Department program in 2003, and Cohen has been an advocate for him. “I’m very happy at the news that he’s on his way, and I look forward to welcoming him and his family tonight and to working with him on his course of study,” Cohen said.
Before he left China, Chen asked his supporters and others in the activist community for their understanding of his desire to leave the front lines of the rights struggle in China.
“I am requesting a leave of absence, and I hope that they will understand,” he said.
The Chinese government’s news agency, Xinhua, issued a report saying Chen “has applied for study in the United States via normal channels in line with the law.”
Chen’s supporters welcomed his departure. “This is great progress,” said U.S.-based rights activist Bob Fu. “It’s a victory for freedom fighters.”