NEW YORK (Reuters) - Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States on Saturday after China allowed him to leave a hospital in Beijing in a move that could signal the end of a diplomatic rift between the two countries.
Chen’s escape from house arrest in northeastern China last month and subsequent stay in the U.S. Embassy was a huge embarrassment for China and led to a diplomatic controversy while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Beijing for talks to improve ties between the world’s two biggest economies.
A United Airlines plane carrying Chen, his wife and two children, landed in at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey shortly after 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) on Saturday, said a Reuters witness on board the flight.
He was then due to travel to New York University in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. Chen, one of China’s most prominent dissidents, is going to study as a fellow at the NYU School of Law, the institution said on Saturday.
A senior White House official, Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council, praised the diplomacy that allowed Chen to come to the United States.
“We welcome this development and the fact that he will be able to pursue a course of study here in the United States upon his arrival,” he said during the Group of Eight summit the United States is hosting at Camp David, Maryland. “We are pleased that this was able to reach a resolution.”
The Foreign Ministry said this month that Chen could apply to study abroad, a move seen as a way of easing Sino-U.S. tensions on rights.
Chen’s friend, Jiang Tianyong, cited the activist as saying that he and his family obtained their passports at the airport in Beijing hours before he boarded the flight.
“I‘m obviously very happy,” Jiang said. “When he boards the plane, he can finally say: ‘I‘m free.’ At the same time, I feel a sense of regret because such a large country like China can’t even tolerate a citizen like him to exist here.”
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration had feared a dispute over Chen’s fate could sour already strained ties with China and generate criticism of Obama’s policies. Beijing has accused Washington of meddling in its affairs in the case.
Chen’s abrupt departure for the airport came nearly three weeks after he arrived at the Chaoyang Hospital from the U.S. Embassy, where he had taken refuge after an escape from 19 months of house arrest in his home village.
Chen, 40, who taught himself law, was a leading advocate of the rights defense movement. He gained prominence by campaigning for farmers and disabled citizens and exposing forced abortions.
He was jailed for a little more than four years starting in 2006 on what he and his supporters say were trumped-up charges designed to end his rights advocacy.
Chen had accused Shandong province officials in 2005 of forcing women to have late-term abortions and sterilizations to comply with strict family planning policies. Authorities moved against him with charges of whipping up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.
Formally released in 2010, Chen remained under house arrest in his home village, which officials turned into a fortress of walls, security cameras and guards in plainclothes guards.
Passengers in Beijing at the gate to Chen’s flight appeared not to know that he would be on the same flight.
“If our country is a body, his plight is like a sickness that in the future will help the body to protect and strengthen itself,” said Xi Jingwen, who was awaiting to board a flight to the United States, when asked about Chen Guangcheng.
Chen’s confinement, his escape and the furor that ensued have made him part of China’s dissident folklore: a blind prisoner outfoxing Communist Party controls in an echo of the man who stood down an army tank near Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The Chen case comes at a tricky time for China, which is engaged in a leadership change. The carefully choreographed transition already has been knocked out of step by the downfall of ambitious senior Communist Party official Bo Xilai in a scandal linked to the apparent murder of a British businessman.
On a number of occasions in recent years, authorities have relented to diplomatic pressure and allowed high-profile dissidents to leave China, knowing that its most vocal critics are effectively neutralized once they leave and are without support of friends.
At times, Beijing has appeared to use these deals as bargaining chips in broader diplomatic negotiations or to blunt criticism of its human rights record.
Chen’s supporters, however, welcomed his departure, saying he had indicated that he would like to return to China.
“I even told him ... that he has to do a repeat of him scaling walls. If not, we wouldn’t be able to believe it,” Nanjing-based activist He Peirong said of her earlier conversation with Chen. She was one of six activists who drove Chen from Shandong to Beijing after his escape.
The U.S. Embassy had earlier thought it had stuck a deal to allow Chen to stay in China without retribution but that fell apart as Chen grew worried about his family’s safety. He changed his mind about staying and asked to travel to the United States.
Human rights are a big factor in relations between China and the United States, even though Washington needs China’s help on issues such as Iran, North Korea, Sudan and the global economy.
The village of Dongshigu, where Chen’s mother and other relatives remain, is still under lockdown.
Chen’s nephew, Chen Kegui, was denied his family’s choice of lawyers on Friday to defend a charge of “intentional homicide”, the latest in a series of moves to deny him legal representation, and underscores the hardline stance taken against the dissident’s family.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Michael Martina in BEIJING, Arshad Mohammed in WASHINGTON, and Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK; Writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Ron Popeski and Bill Trott