Chen, at a brief news conference yesterday near New York University, where he has a fellowship to study law, expressed gratitude for the encouragement he received from supporters around the world. He also said he appreciated the “cool heads” in the Chinese government.
“I hope the Chinese government will continue the course of reform and earn the respect of its people,” Chen said, while adding that he was concerned about further reprisals against supporters and other family members by local authorities.
His exit resolves a dispute that has complicated U.S.-China relations since he turned up at the American embassy in Beijing on April 26 after escaping detention in Shandong province. For President Barack Obama, running for re-election, it puts to rest an issue over which he has been berated by Republicans for not being tough enough on China.
Chen, who is blind, flew to New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport yesterday aboard United Continental Holdings Inc. flight 88 from the Chinese capital. New York University law professor Jerome Cohen, a friend and supporter, arranged the fellowship to enable Chen to study there.
“I don’t know when I’ll come back, but I’ll definitely come back,” Chen said in a telephone interview broadcast by Hong Kong Cable Television before he left China.
The U.S. expressed its “appreciation” to the Chinese government “for the manner in which we were able to resolve this matter and support Mr. Chen’s desire to study in the U.S. and pursue his goals,” according to a statement from State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Chen and his family were accompanied on the flight by two Chinese-speaking officers from the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
“Americans across the country and people all over the world are celebrating,” Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said at the airport where he met Chen.
Smith has championed Chen’s case, and Chen twice called from his Beijing hospital room to Congressional hearings held by Smith to draw attention to his treatment by authorities.
“The beatings are over: The abuse and the psychological trauma,” Smith said. “Just because Chen Guangcheng is free, not all of the Chens are free,” he told more than a dozen reporters from around the world. “There are a large number of family members, his brother and nephew, who now remain at great risk of retaliation.”
Dozens of activists and supporters gathered at the airport awaiting Chen’s arrival. Smith and other government officials whisked him out a side door in order to afford him “a respite and chance to rest,” Smith said.
Smith later rode with Chen in a white van to the activist’s new apartment in Manhattan’s Washington Square Village in the Greenwich Village neighborhood.
“This is a beautiful victory,” said Chai Ling, founder of Boston-based All Girls Allowed, a group that works against forced abortions and China’s one-child policy. She has been in the U.S. on a refugee visa since her involvement as an organizer in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing wasn’t immediately available to comment on Chen’s case. Attempts to reach Chen before the aircraft’s departure were unsuccessful.
“We are relieved that the Chinese government has respected Chen Guangcheng and his family’s legal rights to travel overseas,” Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for New York- based Human Rights Watch, said by telephone. “Chen isn’t just one guy, he is a symbol of thousands and thousands of other people who are trying to exercise their legal rights to seek change in what is, in many ways, an abusive status quo.”
Chen was imprisoned for four years and then kept under house arrest in Shandong province after initiating a class- action lawsuit against forced abortions and sterilizations involving village women.
The activist escaped his confinement last month and fled to Beijing, where he was given shelter at the U.S. embassy days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner arrived for annual talks on U.S.-China cooperation.
Negotiations over Chen’s future drew attention to human rights violations and threatened to derail the high-level meeting. After initially departing the embassy with a Chinese promise that he would be allowed to live freely in China, Chen said he had changed his mind and wanted to go to the U.S.
A deal was reached for Chen to apply for a passport and accept an offer to study law at New York University.
Cohen, co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at the New York University School of Law, stood alongside Chen during his remarks.
Chen said that in the past seven years “I had never had a day of rest. I’ll take some rest here in the U.S. and continue my study.”
“I will continue to work to promote justice and equality in China,” he said. “Justice has no borders. The promise by the Chinese government to protect my citizen rights has not ended with my departure. This is a long-term promise with no time limits.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com