Chen Guangcheng

Blind Dissident Chen Guangcheng Leaves China on Plane for U.S.

China's Chen Guangcheng left on a plane bound for Newark. By Dan Levin.

Ng Han Guan / AP Photo ; (inset) Handout / AP Photo

Beijing – Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who ignited a diplomatic firestorm between the United States and China by escaping house arrest and obtaining refuge in the U.S. embassy, left China on a plane bound for the United States on Saturday afternoon. His departure signals the long-awaited resolution to a case that riveted the world and embarrassed the Chinese government over his daring flight to freedom, first from his Chinese captors and now to U.S. soil, where he will attend New York University on a fellowship to study law.

"We can confirm that Chen Guangcheng, his wife and two children have departed China and are en route to the United States so he can pursue studies at an American university," said Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department in a statement. "We are looking forward to his arrival in the United States later today. 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. "

Chen and his family left on a United Airlines flight bound for Newark, NJ. They had been waiting in a Beijing hospital for nearly three weeks while Chinese authorities processed their passport applications so they could fly out of China as part of a deal with the United States.

This morning Chen, 40, still had no idea his departure was imminent, say sources close to the situation. Bob Fu, the director of the organization ChinaAid, which has been deeply involved in raising awareness of the dissident’s plight, said Chen told him that Chinese authorities surprised the family around 10 a.m. Saturday by ordering them to pack their possessions for the flight. A few hours later they were headed to the Beijing airport where they waited for several hours before government officials presented them with their passports.

Chen and his family were given business class tickets by the U.S. embassy for the intercontinental journey and prior to boarding were kept in a separate VIP section of the airport, shielded from a curious public and foreign journalists who were able to book tickets on the flight at the last minute. Those journalists were told they would have no access to Chen during the 13-hour flight.

In a flurry of conversations with friends and supporters today, Chen said he was thrilled that he and his family were headed for safety in the United State but that he is very concerned about the fate of several of his relatives who have been detained following his escape. These include his nephew, Chen Kegui, who has been charged with “intentional homicide” for fighting back against police officers who had broken into his home once news of Chen Guangcheng’s escape reached local officials. That charge has raised confusion among legal analysts, since nobody was killed in the incident.

“He will be much happier and at least safer in the U.S. after years of struggle,” said ChinaAid's Fu. “But Chen is still thinking about what will happen to his other family members. It’s a very heavy issue for him.”

Chen, a self-taught lawyer from the northeastern province of Shandong, became an enemy of the state after he outraged local officials by filing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of women who had been subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations in his home province. After a long prison sentence on what supporters say were trumped-up charges, he was released in 2010, only to be confined to extra-legal detention in his stone farmhouse along with his mother, wife, and 6-year-old daughter. His case drew global attention to China’s disregard for rule of law and human rights. Rather than acknowledge Chen’s treatment or allow him to go free, the Chinese government installed hired ruffians to surround his village in an effort to stop supporters from visiting him. Many Chinese and foreigners were attacked as they arrived at Chen’s village, including the actor Christian Bale, who visited last year.

After 19 months under round-the-clock surveillance by security agents, Chen clambered over several walls in the dead of night last month. Upon escaping, he contacted Chinese rights activists who trundled him to Beijing and then to the U.S. embassy. That triggered a frenzy of secret negotiations between American and Chinese officials. Initially Chen sought freedom for himself and his family in China, which would allow him to advocate for his downtrodden countrymen. That deal unraveled within hours of his leaving the embassy for Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital after he was left alone in his room surrounded by Chinese security agents and friends urged him to leave China as soon as possible.

What at first looked like a diplomatic victory for the U.S. suddenly erupted into a new crisis. Desperate to avoid a political disaster in the U.S. and abroad, U.S. officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was in Beijing for strategic talks, rapidly negotiated a new deal to permit Chen to attend N.Y.U.

While Chen’s flight to freedom in the U.S. is being celebrated by human rights advocates in China and abroad, his is a rare bright spot in an otherwise dark landscape where dissidents and their relatives are tortured and imprisoned.

“Even though he's free,” said ChinaAid’s Fu, “many other innocent people are waiting for justice.”