Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, whose daring escape to the American embassy in Beijing last month sparked a diplomatic crisis, flew out of China Saturday, arriving 13 hours later in Newark, N.J., to begin a fellowship at New York University.
The news of Chen’s departure evoked a mixture of reactions from regional analysts and the human rights community here – joy at Chen’s safe passage, fears for the well being of the extended family he left behind and regret that he could not safely continue his work in China.
“Chen’s departure for the U.S. does not and should not in any way mark a ‘mission accomplished’ moment for the U.S. government or any other government which values human rights and rule of law in China,” Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, cautioned in a statement
Instead, Kine wrote, “The goal should be to prod the Chinese government to respect international and domestic laws so that human rights defenders such as Chen Guangcheng can find safety, security and room to pursue their passions for justice inside China, rather than seeking safety overseas.”
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He Peirong, an activist who helped drive Chen to Beijing late last month, said in an interview that although much work remains to be done, she hoped that Chen’s story would “inspire many Chinese people’s awakening of an awareness of their rights.”
Chen made no public statement on his arrival at Newark, but later, he addressed a crowd outside the NYU-owned apartment near the university’s Greenwich Village campus that will be his new home. He praised the Chinese government for allowing him to leave.
“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 said, according to news reports.
The State Department welcomed Chen’s travel plans and voiced appreciation for the way China had handled the case. “We are looking forward to his arrival in the United States later today,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. “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.”
While Chen, a self-taught legal crusader, has said repeatedly that he did not intend to seek asylum in America, it was far from obvious when he might return or whether the Chinese government will allow him to do so. Chinese dissidents who’ve left for the West previously have often found themselves cut off from the communities they left behind and silenced by a wall of government censorship.
Chen’s arrival in the U.S. brought to an end a nearly month-long saga that began on April 22, when Chen slipped away from his village in eastern China, where he’d been held under extra-judicial house detention for 19 months, and sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
The initial U.S-brokered deal under which Chen left the U.S. embassy after six days drew harsh criticism from rights activists, who said American diplomats had no way of enforcing promises that China would safeguard Chen’s well-being and allow him to study at a Chinese university. That agreement quickly shifted after Chen told news agencies he wanted to go abroad. Beijing said it would accept Chen’s application for travel documents, and New York University offered Chen a fellowship.
The news on Saturday finally answered questions about whether China would live up to its end of the bargain.
Still to be seen is whether the central government will take any action against the officials responsible for the abuse Chen and his family suffered during his 19 months in captivity in his home town of Dongshigu in Shandong province.
After his escape, Chen issued a video in which he said he and his wife had been beaten repeatedly and other family members had been harassed by dozens of security men who kept him and his home under 24-hour surveillance.
Speaking by phone on Wednesday, Chen told McClatchy that it wasn’t clear to him whether Chinese officials would follow through. He also lamented the plight of his nephew, Chen Kegui, who’s currently in police custody and accused of attempted murder after a fight with men who stormed his house after Chen’s escape was discovered. Chen Kegui’s father – the brother of Chen Guangcheng – has alleged that he was taken away for two days and three nights of questioning that involved being struck in the face.
“This is the ‘strike back and take revenge’ by the Shandong local authorities against me,” Chen said.
As of Wednesday, Chen’s home village was still surrounded by plainclothes security. There was no word Saturday on whether conditions had changed there.
“I feel very delighted that he was able to leave China for America, and is able to have a guarantee for his safety, and to be able to live a free life,” Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and a friend of Chen’s, said in an interview on Saturday. “But on the other hand, I’m very worried about the situation of his family members and the friends who helped him.”
Chinese officials told Chen in recent days that they would be issuing passports for him, his wife and children. Chen had said he expected to have the documents in hand sometime in the coming two weeks, though he wasn’t sure when they’d be delivered to his Beijing hospital room where he’d been receiving treatment for a foot injured during his dash to the capital and other ailments.
The passports were instead given to the family on Saturday after an unexpected trip to Beijing Capital International Airport, apparently for United Airlines Flight No. 88 to Newark.
Chen was placed under house detention in 2010 after his release from a 51-month sentence on charges of destroying public property and organizing a group to disrupt traffic. Most observers saw the conviction as retribution for Chen’s advocacy on behalf of women who’d been subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations during a local campaign to enforce China’s one child per family policy.
Researcher Joyce Zhang contributed to this report.