The blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who had been at the center of a diplomatic row between the U.S. and Chinese governments, completed a four-week journey from confinement in a rural Chinese village to the freedom of New York City, arriving Saturday night after a flight from Beijing with his wife and two children.
Three weeks after taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Chen arrived to study law at New York University. Chen has said he hopes he will end up back in China doing legal reform, but he could end up in prolonged and frustrating exile in the United States.
After landing on a United Airlines flight in Newark, N.J., Chen was whisked to NYU, which has arranged for him to live in graduate-school housing just southeast of Washington Square, and for him to attend law tutorials taught in Chinese since Chen does not speak English. NYU has a U.S.-Asia Law Institute where Chen will be a guest scholar and find other Chinese speakers.
"Americans across the country and people all over the world are celebrating," Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) said at the airport, where he arrived to greet 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."
Smith and other government officials whisked him out a side door to afford him "a respite and chance to rest," Smith said.
Human-rights activists echoed Smith's words.
"Chen's escape should not distract the international community from the task at hand: convincing China's leaders to respect the human rights of all its citizens," Frank Jannuzi, head of the Washington office of Amnesty International, said in an e-mail.
For the last two weeks, Chinese officials and American diplomats worked out of public view to arrange for Chen and his family to travel out of the country. The State Department tapped contingency funds that are specially appropriated for diplomatic and consular emergencies to pay for the business-class flight, said a senior administration official who was not authorized to give his name. Two midlevel embassy officers in Beijing who are fluent in Chinese accompanied him and his family on the journey.
Chen's dramatic escape one month ago from unlawful house arrest in his native Shandong province, and his emergence a week later at the fortified U.S. Embassy in Beijing, had threatened to derail U.S.-China relations at a time when Washington is seeking to engage China's leaders on a wide range of political and economic issues.
But the relatively quick resolution of Chen's case - so sudden that Chen himself did not know Saturday morning that he was leaving for the United States - also suggested that both countries were eager to resolve the matter swiftly and not let it unduly affect their relationship.
Since an initial, vitriolic statement by China's Foreign Ministry that accused U.S. diplomats in Beijing of acting inappropriately in harboring Chen and demanded an apology, Chinese officials have largely refrained from further public comment on the case. And in the midst of the crisis, beginning May 4, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie went ahead with a planned six-day visit to the United States, the first by a Chinese defense minister in nine years.
Still, Chen's departure leaves several unresolved questions that seem to guarantee the case will continue to force human rights to the forefront of the agenda of the U.S.-China relationship.
The largest unsettled issue is the fate of the family members Chen left behind, particularly a nephew, Chen Kegui, who is in prison in Shandong facing charges of intent to murder after he used a kitchen knife to fight off three intruders at his home April 26 following the discovery of his uncle's escape. The three turned out to be government agents.
In addition, Chen's older brother Chen Guangfu reportedly told a Hong Kong magazine that local officials shackled him to a chair for three days and beat him to get him to reveal how his brother managed to escape.
Meanwhile, Dongshigu and at least three other villages remain under the control of plainclothes police and armed thugs, with villagers in one location, Xishigu, telling the Washington Post in interviews that they feel frightened. The thugs have probably clamped down on those neighboring villages because they believe residents there may have aided in Chen Guangcheng's nighttime escape, friends and others said.
After he was taken to Beijing airport Saturday, Chen said by telephone that he had mixed emotions about leaving.
"I really regret not being able to see my mother and brother again before I leave," Chen said. "In the future, I'll continue to urge the Chinese government to completely investigate" what happened in Linyi city, in Shandong. "I won't give up if I don't get a result."
It was a message repeated by human-rights groups and other associates of Chen's.