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, arriving Saturday night after a flight from Beijing with his wife and two children.
Three weeks after Chen took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, his arrival defused political tension between China and the United States. But left uncertain were the future of human rights in China, whether Chen will ever be allowed to return there, and what will become of other relatives who say they remain in danger of harassment and imprisonment.
Chen will study law at New York University, and he has said he hopes to return to China to promote legal reform. But if the Chinese government does not want him back, he could end up stuck in a prolonged and frustrating exile in the United States.
After landing on a United Airlines flight to Newark, Chen was whisked to NYU, which has arranged for him to live in graduate housing near Washington Square and for him to attend law tutorials taught in Chinese because he does not speak English.
“For the past seven years, I have never had a day’s rest,” said Chen, standing with crutches, to a small crowd at the NYU housing complex. “So I have come here for a bit of recuperation in body and in spirit.” He thanked the U.S. government and praised the Chinese government for dealing with his situation “with restraint and calm.”
Human rights activists hailed Chen’s arrival, but added that although his coming to the United States might be a face-saving way to defuse diplomatic tensions, China remains unchanged.
“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 past two weeks, Chinese officials and American diplomats worked out of public view to enable Chen and his family to travel out of the country. The State Department tapped contingency funds to pay for the business-class flight, said a senior administration official who was not authorized to give his name. Two mid-level embassy officers in Beijing who had gotten to know Chen and 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 as Washington seeks to engage China’s leaders on a wide range of global 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 — suggested that both countries were eager to resolve the matter swiftly and not let it unduly affect their broader relationship.
An initial, vitriolic statement by China’s Foreign Ministry accused U.S. diplomats of acting inappropriately by harboring Chen and demanded an apology. But Chinese officials have largely refrained from public comment on the case. And in the midst of the crisis, China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie went ahead this month 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 that the case will continue to push human rights to the forefront of the agenda of the U.S.-China relationship.
The largest unsettled issue is the fate of relatives Chen left behind, particularly a nephew, Chen Kegui, who is in prison in Shandong facing charges of intent to murder. Chen Kegui used a kitchen knife to fight off three intruders in his home April 26 after the discovery of his uncle’s escape. The three turned out to be government agents.
In addition, Chen Guangfu, Chen Guangcheng’s older brother, reportedly told a Hong Kong magazine that local officials shackled him to a chair for three days and beat him to make him reveal how Chen Guangcheng managed to escape.
Meanwhile, Chen’s home village, Dongshigu, and at least three other villages remain under the control of plainclothes police and armed thugs, and villagers in one location, Xishigu, told The Washington Post in interviews that they are frightened. The thugs have probably clamped down on neighboring villages because they suspect residents aided in Chen Guangcheng’s nighttime escape, friends and others said.
After he was taken to Beijing airport Saturday, Chen Guangcheng told The Post by telephone that he had mixed emotions about leaving because of his concern for his relatives.
“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 to his relatives living in Linyi city, in Shandong. “I won’t give up if I don’t get a result.”
Chen’s wife, Yuan Weijing, also appeared to feel mixed feelings about the sudden departure. “Of course, I have some worries about the investigation and the case of Chen Kegui,” she told The Post. “We’ll see what they do next.”
On Saturday night in New York, Chen said to people gathered outside his temporary home that he believed the Chinese government’s “promise to protect my rights as a citizen over the long term.” He said he thought that Chinese officials were “sincere and that they are not lying to me” when they said they would investigate legal abuses in Shandong.
“We should link our arms and continue in the fight for the goodness in the world and to fight against injustice,” Chen said.
It was a message repeated by human rights groups and associates of Chen’s.
“The U.S. government and other foreign governments need to redouble their efforts to seek the protection of those relatives, friends and supporters of Chen Guangcheng who remain in China and are vulnerable to unlawful official reprisals merely due to their association with Chen and support for his cause,” said Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
Chen was greeted at Newark by two State Department officials and by Jerome A. Cohen, a law professor and co-director of NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, who helped arrange Chen’s program at NYU.
Over the past three weeks, some Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have accused the Obama administration of mismanaging Chen’s case.
But speaking outside the NYU housing complex Saturday night before Chen arrived, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, global health and human rights, said, “It’s a time of great celebration.” He added that Chen “has been among the most noble and courageous human rights defenders in China.”
“He’s the man of the hour, of the decade,” Smith said.
Richburg reported from Beijing. Lynch reported from New York. Staff writer William Wan in Washington and staff researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.