BEIJING: China allowed a blind legal activist, Chen Guangcheng, to leave a hospital in Beijing today and board a plane bound for the United States, a move that could signal the end of a diplomatic standoff between the two countries.
Chen’s escape from house arrest in northeastern China last month and subsequent stay in the US embassy caused huge embarrassment for China and led to a diplomatic rift while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Beijing for talks to improve ties between the world’s two biggest economies.
The US State Department said he was en route to the United States, along with his wife and two children. He boarded a United Airlines flight bound for Newark. State news agency Xinhua said Chen had applied to study in the United States under legal procedures, in the first official account of Chen’s activities, but made no mention of whether he had left the country. The Foreign Ministry said this month that Chen could apply to study abroad, a move seen as a way of easing Sino-US tensions on human rights.
Chen’s friend, Jiang Tianyong, cited the activist, one of China’s most prominent dissidents, as saying that he and his family obtained their passports at the airport hours before he was due to board a 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.”
There was no immediate indication where Chen might pursue his studies, but New York University’s law school has previously offered him a position as a ‘visiting scholar’.
A statement by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland struck a conciliatory note, saying Washington was ‘looking forward’ to Chen’s arrival. “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 US and pursue his goals,” it said.
Chen’s abrupt departure for the airport came about three weeks after he arrived at the Chaoyang Hospital from the US embassy, where he had taken refuge after an escape from 19 months under house arrest in his home village. Chen (40) gained prominence by campaigning for farmers and disabled citizens and exposing forced abortions. He was jailed for a little over four years from 2006 on what he and his supporters say were trumped-up charges designed to end his rights advocacy.