Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng began a new life in the United States, praising Beijing’s “restraint and calm” as he sought to draw a line under a month-long tussle that tested China-US ties.
Chen on Saturday asked to say a “few simple words” as he, his wife Yuan Weijing, and their two young children were greeted with cheers and applause on arrival at the New York University apartment block that now becomes their home.
“After much turbulence I have come out of Shandong, this is thanks to the assistance of many friends,” he said. “At the most critical juncture the American embassy in China provided a safe haven and the American government has provided me with assistance and granted me citizenship rights here.”
Chen expressed his gratitude to the American embassy for ushering him to a new life in the United States, but he was also was quick to praise the “restraint and calm” of the Chinese government in dealing with the tumultuous international row.
He said he believed Beijing’s promises were “sincere,” but was clearly concerned about the fate of relatives left behind.
One of China’s best-known activists, Chen, a self-taught lawyer, won plaudits for investigating forced sterilizations and late-term abortions under China’s “one-child” family planning policy.
He and his family touched down at Newark Liberty International Airport, outside New York, on a United Airlines flight from Beijing shortly before 2230 GMT.
His arrival capped an astonishing odyssey. Chen made a dramatic escape from his village in April after more than seven years either in prison or house arrest, eventually securing sanctuary at the US embassy in Beijing.
In a gripping account of his escape, Chen told AFP earlier this month that after weeks of preparation to put his guards off the scent, his wife pushed him over a wall built around his small home.
He broke his foot when he landed on the other side, but undeterred, he scrambled in pain to a neighbor’s pig sty, where he hid until nightfall.
After a long and painful journey through fields and over walls, he eventually made his way to the home of a friend.
His shock arrival at the US embassy sparked an international row that threatened to damage China-US relations and officials hastily struck a deal to let Chen go free — an agreement that appeared to suit both sides.
That accord hit a snag before protracted negotiations secured a new agreement to allow him to participate in a fellowship at New York University.
After being holed up for more than two weeks at a Beijing hospital with his fate still uncertain, Chen was suddenly given notice earlier Saturday to pack up his belongings and prepare for departure.
Jiang Tianyong, a lawyer and close friend, said Chen had mixed feelings about leaving China.
“He seemed to be reluctant to leave and didn’t consider it the optimal solution, even though he agreed that it was the best he could do to ensure his personal safety,” Jiang said.
US politicians welcomed Chen’s arrival but many also expressed concern about his family and other dissidents who remain in China fearing repression.
“The arrival of Chen Guangcheng to the United States is a milestone in the cause for human rights in China,” said former House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“The courage of Chen Guangcheng to risk his life and livelihood to advocate for disadvantaged people in China is an inspiration to freedom-seeking people around the world.
“I am happy that Mr. Chen is now able to safely study in the US, and he and his family can now pursue their goals.”
Chen, who had been held under house arrest after being released from a four-year jail term in September 2010, fled his home in the eastern province of Shandong on April 22 under the noses of plain-clothes security officers.
In a video address to China’s Premier Wen Jiabao posted online, Chen said he had suffered repeated beatings and expressed serious concerns for his wife and family.
He pitched up at the US embassy in Beijing less than a week before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to visit China for high-level talks.
Chinese and American diplomats scrambled to find a solution, and reached an initial agreement under which Chen would stay in China under more agreeable conditions.
Chen left the embassy but regretted it almost immediately, telling journalists that he wanted to go to the United States. China later relented, saying he could apply to go abroad like any other Chinese citizen.
As a research fellow at NYU, Chen is expected to work with other law school experts.
“I look forward to welcoming him and his family tonight, and to working with him on his course of study,” said Jerome Cohen, co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at the NYU School of Law.