Guangcheng’s Flight to Freedom

Melinda Liu on the extraordinary odyssey of Chen Guangcheng.

Eduardo Munoz / Reuters-Landov

Ending a weeks-long diplomatic drama, blind Chinese dissident and lawyer Chen Guangcheng arrived in the U.S. on Saturday evening. During the flight, Chen expressed hope for a new life in America, but also concern for his family—including his aging mother, who is still in China.

“I thank the American Embassy and American people,” Chen, 40, told a handful of reporters on the plane who had traveled with him from Beijing to Newark, N.J. “I’ll never forget what they’ve done.”

Late last month, Chen, a noted activist for women and the poor, made a dramatic escape from house arrest in the province of Shandong, taking refuge in the American Embassy for six days. After being transferred to a Beijing hospital for medical treatment, he announced his desire to leave China. Nearly three weeks of U.S.-Chinese negotiations led to a deal that saw him leave Beijing for a law fellowship in the U.S.—and a new life.

Chen vowed to return to China one day and declared that he still believes the central government’s promises that he’ll be allowed to return. “Many people don’t believe them, but I do.”

Nearing the end of the 13-hour journey from Beijing, Chen was in a thoughtful mood. “I have mixed feelings. There’s so much I wanted to do in China. I feel a little sad.” He said his main concern was for his family, including his 78-year-old mother, his older brother Cheng Guangfu, and his nephew Chen Kequi, who is in police custody. “I also hope the central government will keep its promise to investigate Shandong officials.” Local officials subjected Chen to beatings, intimidation, and extralegal house arrest since his release from prison in September 2010.

Chen made headlines by organizing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of Shandong women forced to undergo sterilizations and abortions by overzealous local authorities in the name of China’s stringent one-child policy. That campaign against him had been much more heavy-handed than people realize, and 10 people died as a result of it, Chen said on the plane.

Before his departure this week, Chinese officials warned Chen to watch his words while abroad, suggesting his behavior could impact the fate of his nephew Chen Kegui, who faces criminal charges after an altercation with thugs who broke into his father’s house and attacked the family.

After weeks of drama and uncertainty, Chen’s departure came much more quickly than expected. On Friday morning, Chen, whom I have known for years, called me, excitedly, to announce that he was finally leaving. For weeks, we had talked about the journey and the possibility of me joining him on the plane. “Try to make it on my flight,” he said. Several phone calls ensued, many disrupted by sudden cuts on the line when we tried to discuss his departure.

His wife said their biggest worry was for Chen’s nephew, whose wife had tried to hire two defense lawyers, only to be told by local authorities that Kegui had asked for a public defender. “That’s the same thing that happened to Guangcheng,” she said, referring to Chen’s trial during which his own lawyers were harassed and barred from court.

Before his departure, Chinese authorities had made it clear to Chen and the U.S. Embassy that they wanted his journey to the U.S. to be as low key as possible. There would be no advance notice and no media fanfare. But on Saturday, Chen called me from the airport, astonished at the scene there. “Wow,” he said, “there are so many people around.”

At the departure hall, security was intense and Chen was sequestered in a VIP room before being whisked onto the plane at the last minute. The American officials accompanying Chen wanted him to have “total privacy,” said airport staff.

Having arrived in the U.S., Chen faces tough decisions regarding his public profile—and how much he wants to speak out on human rights in China. “Chen’s nephew is the government’s bargaining chip with him, and that will hang over him while he’s in the U.S.,” said Bob Fu, who is close to Chen. Fu is also the head of president of ChinaAid, a Texas-based Christian advocacy group. Chen’s wife and two children were with him on the flight.

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Even in America, Chen may not be free.