Chinese activist who escaped arrest lands in United States

By

Published:

 

NEWARK, N.J. — A Chinese legal activist who was suddenly allowed to leave the country arrived in the United States on Saturday, ending a nearly monthlong diplomatic tussle that had 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 suddenly 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 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 a bit of recuperation for body and in spirit."

Chen urged the crowd to fight against injustice, and thanked the U.S. and Chinese governments, along with the embassies of Switzerland, Canada and France.

Chen gave a short statement, which was greeted by cheers in Mandarin and English, but did not take questions. The U.S. has granted him partial citizenship rights, he said.

The departure of Chen, his wife and two children to the United States ended 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, the blind man made a daring nighttime escape from his rural village -- breaking his foot while scaling a wall -- in April and was given sanctuary inside the U.S. Embassy, triggering a diplomatic standoff over his fate. With Secretary of State Hillary Rodham 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.

"Thousands of thoughts are surging to my mind," Chen said before he left China. 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. It has barred many other expatriated activists.

In New York, he said China had promised to protect his rights as a citizen there.

"I am very gratified to see that the Chinese government has been dealing with the situation with restraint and calm, and I hope to see that they continue to open discourse and earn the respect and trust of the people."

Chen's expected attendance at New York University 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 United States on a State Department program in 2003, and Cohen has been staunch advocate for him since.

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.

China's state news agency, Xinhua, issued a brief report saying that 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."

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 of previous democracy movements and thus could potentially appeal to ordinary Chinese.

Chen gained recognition for crusading for the disabled and for farmers' rights and fighting against forced abortions in his rural community. That angered local officials, who seemed to wage a personal vendetta against him, convicting him in 2006 on what his supporters say were fabricated charges and then holding him for the past 20 months in illegal house arrest.