The arrival in the U.S. of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng appeared to reflect careful calculations in China and the U.S. as they seek to cooperate on a range of economic and security issues.
BEIJING — Activist Chen Guangcheng, who had been at the center of a diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Chinese governments, arrived in New York City late Saturday after a flight from Beijing with his wife and two children.
Weeks after he escaped from house arrest in a Shandong province village and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Chen — a self-taught lawyer blinded by childhood illness — arrived to study law at New York University.
He and his family arrived Saturday evening at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and were whisked to New York City. They were greeted with cheers at the Greenwich Village complex housing NYU faculty and graduate students where they will live.
“For the past seven years, I have never had a day’s rest, so I have come here for reparation in body and spirit,” he said through an interpreter; Chen does not speak English.
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He urged the crowd to fight injustice, 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 Chinese province where he had been held under house arrest.
The arrival of Chen, one of China’s most prominent dissidents, and the negotiations that led up to it, appeared to reflect careful calculations in the U.S. and China as they seek to cooperate on a range of economic and security issues.
The U.S. role in aiding Chen — spiriting him into the embassy after he escaped house arrest with the help of other dissidents — infuriated the Chinese, who complained bitterly about what they considered interference in their internal affairs. But in the end, Chinese officials quietly engaged with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and a team of diplomats to defuse what could have evolved into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.
For China’s government, Chen’s departure followed a pattern of allowing some especially vocal dissidents to leave to minimize the impact of their activism at home, but it also appeared to reflect an assessment that it was not worth damaging relations with the United States to force him to stay.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “We … express our appreciation for the manner in which we were able to resolve this matter and to support Mr. Chen’s desire to study in the U.S. and pursue his goals.”
Her statement referred to the complex understanding — the Chinese were loath to call it a deal — in which Chen, 40, will be allowed to attend NYU Law School on a fellowship rather than seek asylum, which Chinese authorities considered an affront.
Chen left Beijing on Saturday with his wife, Yuan Weijing, and two children, and like most events surrounding his case, the departure was shrouded in secrecy. Chen and his family did not know they were leaving until several hours before the flight, and it was only on the way to the airport that they learned where they were heading.
On the United Airlines plane, flight attendants drew a curtain around their business-class seats.
Speaking by cellphone before he boarded the flight, Chen told friends he was excited to be leaving China but was also worried about the fate of relatives he was leaving behind. His nephew, Chen Kegui, is accused of attempted murder after he allegedly used a kitchen knife to attack officials who stormed his house after discovering Chen went missing last month.
“I really regret not being able to see my mother and brother again before I leave,” he added.
Bob Fu, of ChinaAid, a Christian advocacy group in Texas that championed Chen’s case, said: “He’s happy to finally have a rest after seven years of suffering, but he’s also worried (his family) will suffer some retribution.”
Chen’s journey began last month when he escaped from house arrest, scaling walls and evading the dozens of guards who were charged with keeping him and his family locked in their Shandong province farmhouse.
With the help of Chinese activists, Chen made his way to Beijing, and three days later, into the U.S. diplomatic compound. During 30 hours of tense negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials, Chen rejected the idea of asylum and insisted he wanted to stay in China, as long as he and his family could be shielded from further persecution. Exile, he feared, might silence his voice as an advocate for reform in China.
A deal was reached, but Chen grew fearful and changed his mind in the hours after leaving the embassy. A fresh crisis ensued and another agreement was quickly forged May 4.
Chen, who was once toasted by China’s state media for his advocacy of the disabled and the disenfranchised, ran into trouble with authorities in 2005 after organizing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of women in Shandong who had been subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations. A year later, a court sent him to prison for more than four years on charges that were widely seen as spurious.
Although technically a free man after his release in September 2010, he encountered restrictions. County officials, with the backing of provincial authorities, turned his home into a makeshift prison, with surveillance cameras, guards and cellphone-jamming equipment, cutting him off from the outside world.
In a homemade video smuggled out of China last year and posted on the Internet, Chen and his wife detailed the indignities of their detention, and local officials responded with beatings.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.