Chen Guangcheng Pulls Off Escape, May Be Able to Live Free in China

The blind activist pulled off an amazing feat with his daring escape—and now it looks like he will be able to fulfill his wish of living free on Chinese soil. Dan Levin on why Chen reportedly told Hillary Clinton ‘I want to kiss you.’ Plus, read Duncan Hewitt on the coming diplomatic war.

Jordan Pouille, AFP / Getty Images

Chen Guangcheng, the blind human-rights lawyer who escaped house arrest last week and triggered a diplomatic storm by seeking refuge in the U.S. embassy, emerged on Wednesday and is receiving medical treatment at a local hospital, where he is being reunited with his family. Chen left the embassy compound after receiving assurances from the Chinese government that he would be treated humanely and allowed to attend university, U.S. officials said.

The sudden twist of events came hours after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Beijing for an annual session of strategic talks that had been clouded by Chen’s presence in the embassy. Both governments broke days of official silence on the matter, with China accusing the U.S. of interfering in its domestic affairs by harboring Chen and the Americans refusing to apologize.

On his way to the hospital, a gleeful Chen reportedly spoke with Secretary Clinton, telling her “I want to kiss you.” Hospital officials whisked him away in a wheelchair for medical treatment as security guards and plainclothes police blocked access to those who had gathered. Doctors at the hospital said he needed an X-ray for a foot injury he received when he fell over a wall during his flight.

According to U.S. State Department officials, Chen was using a crutch when he arrived at the embassy last Thursday. “On humanitarian grounds we assisted him and allowed him to remain on a temporary basis,” said an official traveling with Secretary Clinton.

With Chen free, the Chinese government unleashed a coordinated torrent of criticism against the U.S. on Wednesday following the previous complete media blackout. "It should be pointed out that Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese citizen, was taken to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing via abnormal means, and the Chinese side is strongly dissatisfied with the move," said a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman on Wednesday, according to the state news agency Xinhua. China, he continued, demands that the United States thoroughly investigate the event, hold relevant people accountable, and ensure that such an event does not happen again.

Secretary Clinton issued a statement following Chen’s departure saying he had left the embassy of his own accord after the Chinese government promised he could safely study at a university. U.S. officials say they will work to ensure China keeps its word. “Mr. Chen has a number of understandings with the Chinese government about his future, including the opportunity to pursue higher education in a safe environment,” she said. “Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task.”

For now, the resolution appears to be exactly what Chen wanted. Human-rights activists who spoke with Chen following his flight from house arrest say he had no desire to leave China but rather wanted to live freely in his homeland.

U.S. officials said Chen would be relocated to another region in China distant from the site of his house arrest and would be allowed to further pursue study of law. “He will have several university options,” an official said.

The resolution clears a massive headache for both sides in the lead-up to Thursday's Strategic & Economic Dialogue summit, allowing the U.S. and China to pursue long-term objectives on a range of issues from currency to North Korea.

Chen’s freedom is a remarkable turnaround in a country where countless activists are imprisoned, tortured, and detained indefinitely for drawing attention to human-rights abuses. The self-taught blind lawyer angered Chinese officials when he attempted to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of peasants who were forced to undergo sterilization or abortions as part of China’s infamous “one-child policy.” Imprisoned for four years and then kept inside his stone farmhouse in China’s northern Shandong province, Chen fled last week after 20 months of house arrest in a dramatic escape that ended at the U.S. embassy.

Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong-Kong-based researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Chen used a brilliant strategy to win his freedom. In a video he filmed before going to the U.S. embassy, Chen beseeched Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to investigate the violent abuse on him and his family while under house arrest—even though Chen knew full well China’s central leadership condoned the abuse.

“Chen was very careful to leave door open for the Chinese government to resolve this crisis by pretending this issue was only a local matter,” he said. That Chen walked free and has been allowed to study the very subject that landed him in prison shows the strategy worked—at least for now.

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"It's pretty extraordinary," he said. “One man managed to make the entire Chinese government bend."