Blind Chinese activist set to leave for U.S.

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BEIJING (AP) — A blind Chinese activist whose escape from a rural village set off a diplomatic tussle between Beijing and Washington said Saturday that he was at an airport waiting to leave for the United States.

Chen Guangcheng told The Associated Press that he had left the hospital where he’d been staying and was at Beijing’s international airport. He said he expected to leave on a flight late Saturday afternoon for Newark, New Jersey, outside New York City.

“Thousands of thoughts are surging to my mind,” Chen said by phone from the airport, sounding hurried but calm.

The departure of Chen and his family to the United States would mark the conclusion of nearly a month of uncertainty for the self-taught legal activist who made a daring escape from abusive house arrest in his village last month.

He sought the protection of U.S. diplomats at the American Embassy in Beijing, triggering a diplomatic standoff days ahead of unrelated high-level talks on global hotspots and economic imbalances led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. After days of tense negotiations, Beijing and Washington announced an agreement in which he and his family would be allowed to travel to the United States for him to study.

Chen said his wife and two children were with him at the airport, and that the family had been given their passports. Also with him were hospital and border control staff.

Chen said he hoped that the Chinese government would fulfill promises it made to him, including that the authorities would investigate abuses against him and his family in Shandong province.

Chen thanked his supporters and others in the activist community, saying, “I am requesting a leave of absence, and I hope that they will understand.”

Yet he seemed ambivalent about his imminent departure, saying he was “not happy” about leaving and that he had a lot on his mind, including worries about retaliation against his extended family back home.

Chen left the embassy on May 2 and was hospitalized for treatment for injuries sustained during his escape. He had since been awaiting permission to travel to the U.S. to study, where he has an invitation to study law at New York University.

The State Department has said that U.S. visas for Chen, his wife and children are ready for them to travel to America. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Saturday that it had no comment on Chen’s planned departure.

The 40-year-old Chen is emblematic of a new breed of activists that the Communist Party finds threatening. Often from rural and working-class families, these “rights defenders,” as they are called, are unlike the students and intellectuals from the elite academies and major cities who led the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.

A self-taught legal activist, Chen gained recognition for crusading for the disabled and fighting against forced abortions in his rural community. But he angered local officials and was convicted in 2006 on what his supporters say were fabricated charges. After serving four years in prison, he then faced an abusive and illegal house arrest.

Nanjing activist blogger He Peirong, who was instrumental in helping Chen escape from house arrest, said she was very happy to hear that Chen and his family were on their way to the United States.

“I hope that this will be a good beginning,” said He, who was detained for several days by police for helping Chen. “I hope that they will all be well and safe.”

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Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler contributed to this report.