NEW YORK—A blind Chinese legal activist who escaped house arrest, endured a nearly month-long diplomatic tussle and a hurried daylong flight paused ever so briefly upon his arrival in New York City before taking up a familiar fight.
Taken from a hospital in his homeland and put on a plane for the US after Chinese authorities suddenly told him Saturday to pack and prepare to leave, Chen Guangcheng embraced his new surroundings at New York University (NYU) and renewed his call to fight injustice.
“I believe that no matter how difficult the environment nothing is impossible if you put your heart to it,” he told a cheering crowd at NYU shortly after arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport on Saturday evening.
“We should link our arms to continue in the fight for the goodness in the world and to fight against injustice. So, I think that all people should apply themselves to this end to work for the common good worldwide.”
Chen was suddenly allowed to leave China earlier in the day, ending a dispute that tested US-China relations.
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,” Chen said through a translator, “so I have come here for a bit of recuperation for body and in spirit.”
Chen thanked the US and Chinese governments, along with 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 was under house arrest. The U.S. has granted him partial citizenship rights, he said.
Chen gave a short statement, which was greeted by cheers in Mandarin and English. He didn’t take questions from reporters.
The departure of Chen, his wife and two children to the United States marked the conclusion 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 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 US 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.
In New York, he said China had promised him protection of 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 US 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 leaving 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.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland praised the quiet negotiations that freed him.
“We also 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,” Nuland said in a statement.
The White House also said it was pleased with the outcome of negotiations.
China’s Foreign Ministry said it had no comment. The government’s 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 US-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.
Even with the backstage negotiations, Chen’s departure came hastily. Chen spent the last two-and-a-half weeks in a hospital for the foot he broke escaping house arrest. Only on Wednesday did Chinese authorities help him complete the paperwork needed for his passport.
Chen said by telephone on Saturday that he was informed at the hospital just before noon to pack his bags to leave. Officials did not give him and his family passports or inform them of their flight details until after they got to the airport.
Seeming ambivalent, Chen said that 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. 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 Guangcheng was missing.
“I hope that the government will fulfill the promises it made to me, all of its promises,” Chen said. Such promises included launching an investigation into abuses against him and his family in Shandong province, he said before the phone call was cut off.
Much as Chen has said he wants return to China, it remains uncertain whether the Chinese government would bar him, as they have done with many exiled activists.
“Chen’s departure for the US does not and should not in any way mark a ‘mission accomplished’ moment for the U.S. government,” said Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The harder, longer-term part is ensuring his right under international law to return to China when he sees fit.”