By Andrew Jacobs The New York Times
Posted: 19 May 2012 08:15 AM PDT
BEIJING — Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal defender who made a dramatic escape from house arrest and whose decision to seek refuge in the American Embassy here jolted American-Sino relations, left China aboard a commercial flight bound for Newark on Saturday.
Mr. Chen and his family departed around 5:30 p.m. on a United Airlines flight after facing earlier delays. The Chens, accompanied by American officials, were brought onto the plane shortly before takeoff and seated in the business-class cabin. Flight attendants drew a curtain around their seats and barred other passengers in the cabin from using the toilet while the plane was on the runway.
In a statement, American officials obliquely praised the Chinese government for its cooperation in resolving what had become a diplomatic headache for both sides. “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,” Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman said.
Speaking by cellphone before he boarded the flight, Mr. Chen told friends he was excited to leave China but that he was also worried about the fate of relatives left behind. “He’s happy to finally have a rest after seven years of suffering, but he’s also worried they will suffer some retribution,” said Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, a Christian advocacy group in Texas that championed Mr. Chen’s case.
Mr. Fu, who spoke to Mr. Chen several times on Saturday, said the family had no idea they were leaving — or where they were going — until officials notified them to pack up their few belongings.
They were driven directly to Beijing International Airport by employees of Chaoyang Hospital, where Mr. Chen was being treated for intestinal problems and for the foot he broke during his escape. Mr. Chen told friends that he and his family were handed their passports by Chinese officials shortly before they boarded the plane.
The family waited for their flight in an area separated from other passengers. Airline officials increased security on the flight, and reporters were told they would not be able to speak to Mr. Chen during the 13-hour trip to Newark.
One of China’s best known dissidents, Mr. Chen, 40, made a daring escape last month from home confinement, scaling walls and evading the dozens of guards who were charged with keeping him and his family locked up in their Shandong Province farmhouse.
With the help of Chinese activists, he made his way to Beijing, and three days later, into the American diplomatic compound. During 30 hours of tense negotiations between American and Chinese officials, Mr. Chen rejected the idea of asylum and insisted that 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 legal reform in China.
A deal was reached, but Mr. Chen grew fearful and changed his mind in the hours after leaving the embassy. A fresh crisis ensued — with critics accusing the Obama administration of pressuring him to leave the compound — and another agreement was quickly forged. The deal, announced May 4, allowed Mr. Chen to attend New York University Law School on a fellowship.
The American Embassy bought the plane tickets but will reimbursed by New York University, said a source with knowledge of the arrangements. An embassy spokesman declined to comment on Saturday.
The story of Mr. Chen’s tribulations, and his unlikely escape from draconian house arrest, has riveted much of the world, even as censors kept the news from ordinary citizens in China.
A self-taught lawyer blinded by childhood illness, he was once toasted by the state media for his advocacy of the disabled and the disenfranchised. His wife, Yuan Weijing, would read aloud to him legal documents and help with court filings.
But in 2005, he ran into trouble with the authorities by 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, Mr. Chen encountered a new round of restrictions. Local officials, with the backing of provincial authorities, turned his home into a makeshift prison, with surveillance cameras, hired thugs and cellphone jamming equipment ensuring he was cut off from the outside world.
In a homemade video that was smuggled out of Dongshigu village last year and posted on the Internet, the couple detailed the indignities of their detention. Local officials responded with a vicious round of beatings that Mr. Chen said left them with lingering injuries.
The cordon also kept out visitors, including the journalists, diplomats and freelance Chinese activist who were violently repelled when they tried to enter the village.
His entry into the embassy, aided by American officials who evaded pursuing security agents, infuriated Chinese leaders, who accused Washington of meddling in its domestic affairs. The diplomatic crisis was compounded by a deadline: the imminent arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top officials for previously scheduled talks in the capital.
Despite some early missteps, human rights advocates mostly lauded the State Department for crafting a resolution that satisfied Mr. Chen and his supporters while preventing a wider rift with Beijing. The last dissident to seek protection in the embassy, Fang Lizhi, spent a year in the diplomatic compound before Chinese officials agreed to let him leave for the United States in 1990. Mr. Fang, who died last month in Arizona, never returned to China.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher based in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch, offered tempered praise for the Chinese government’s handling of the episode but said he would reserve further judgment until the day Mr. Chen sought to return to China. “Only then would this episode register as a significant turning point for the rights defense movement, and for U.S. diplomacy in creating a tailored solution that is different from the model of the past,” Mr. Bequelin said.
In the two weeks since he left the embassy, Mr. Chen has expressed concern for relatives still at the mercy of local officials in Shandong. American diplomats said Chinese officials rejected a list of 13 people, many of them family members, that Mr. Chen had said he wanted protected from harassment.
A nephew, Chen Kegui, is in police custody accused of slashing and injuring men who broke into his family’s rural home last month in their search for Mr. Chen. The nephew faces a possible death sentence and has been denied access to his lawyers. His father, Chen Guangfu, has said he was tied to a chair and beaten for three days by interrogators seeking information on his brother’s whereabouts.
On Saturday, however, many Chinese dissidents and rights advocates were celebrating, among them Teng Biao, a prominent rights lawyer and friend who had advised Mr. Chen to go abroad.
“I am very happy Mr. Chen will finally have a chance at a normal life,” he said
Edy Yin contributed reporting from United Airlines Flight 88.