NEW YORK – Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States on Saturday after China allowed him to leave a hospital in Beijing in a move that could signal the end of a diplomatic rift between the two countries.
Chen’s escape from house arrest in northeastern China last month and subsequent stay in the U.S. Embassy was a huge embarrassment for China and led to a diplomatic controversy while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Beijing for talks to improve ties between the world’s two biggest economies.
“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, speaking through a translator, told reporters outside a New York University housing building in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood.
Chen, one of China’s most prominent dissidents, is going to study as a fellow at the NYU School of Law. Leaning on a crutch, he smiled and waved to a crowd of cheering supporters before speaking to reporters.
A United Airlines plane carrying Chen, his wife and two children, landed at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey shortly after 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) on Saturday and Chen was the first person taken off the plane. Some passengers said they had been prevented from taking photos during the flight.
Chen was accompanied on the flight by two Chinese-speaking officials from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and was met at the airport by State Department officials and Jerome Cohen, co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University, a State Department official said.
A senior White House official, Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council, praised the diplomacy that allowed Chen to come to the United States.
“We welcome this development and the fact that he will be able to pursue a course of study here in the United States upon his arrival,” he said during the Group of Eight summit the United States is hosting at Camp David, Maryland. “We are pleased that this was able to reach a resolution.”
The Foreign Ministry said this month that Chen could apply to study abroad, a move seen as a way of easing Sino-U.S. tensions on rights.
Chen’s friend, Jiang Tianyong, cited the activist as saying that he and his family obtained their passports at the airport in Beijing hours before he boarded the flight.
“I’m obviously very happy,” Jiang said. “When he boards the plane, he can finally say: ‘I’m free.’ At the same time, I feel a sense of regret because such a large country like China can’t even tolerate a citizen like him to exist here.”
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration had feared a dispute over Chen’s fate could sour already strained ties with China and generate criticism of Obama’s policies. Beijing has accused Washington of meddling in its affairs in the case.
Chen’s abrupt departure for the airport came nearly three weeks after he arrived at the Chaoyang Hospital from the U.S. Embassy, where he had taken refuge after an escape from 19 months of house arrest in his home village.
Chen, 40, who taught himself law, was a leading advocate of the rights defense movement. He gained prominence by campaigning for farmers and disabled citizens and exposing forced abortions.
He was jailed for a little more than four years starting in 2006 on what he and his supporters say were trumped-up charges designed to end his rights advocacy.
Chen had accused Shandong province officials in 2005 of forcing women to have late-term abortions and sterilizations to comply with strict family planning policies. Authorities moved against him with charges of whipping up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.
Formally released in 2010, Chen remained under house arrest in his home village, which officials turned into a fortress of walls, security cameras and guards in plainclothes guards.