Blind activist leaves for US

Martin Flaherty in Singapore Straits Times, May 19, 2012

Beijing - Blind activist Chen Guangcheng yesterday left China for New York, capping an amazing escape from illegal home arrest that sparked a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States.

Mr. Chen, 40, boarded a flight with his wife and two children to go to Newark, just outside New York, where he is expected to start law studies at New York University.

Confirming his departure, U.S. State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said: "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." China's Xinhua news agency said Mr. Chen "has applied for study in the U.S. via normal channels in line with the law."

Mr. Chen was told to pack for the US all of a sudden yesterday morning, said lawyer Jiang Tianyong, a friend of his. The Chens were handed their passports just before boarding, Mr. Jiang said on Twitter. Many welcomed news of their departure.

"Yes, I'm very happy... Thank you everyone who has worked hard for this," said Ms. He Peirong, an English teacher who had helped drive Mr Chen from eastern Shandong province to Beijing after his escape.

A self-taught legal activist who tried to win justice for villagers forced to undergo abortions, Mr. Chen has been jailed and frequently harassed for his efforts.

On April 22, he got past security guards stationed outside his house and was driven to Beijing. Four days later, he ended up in the U.S. embassy, triggering a diplomatic spat between the two powers. After tense talks, both sides agreed on a deal to allow him to go to the U.S. to study. Observers said Beijing did so to get rid of a high-profile dissident and someone they saw as a thorn in Sino-U.S. ties.

"Allowing activists to leave the country is an established method for the regime, especially in high-profile cases, going back at least to Wei Jingsheng," said human rights expert Martin Flaherty, referring to the pro-democracy activist.

Beijing also wanted to get Mr. Chen out of China before the anniversary of the June 4 uprising, reported Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper.

Human rights researcher Nicholas Bequelin told The Sunday Times that the real test now would be whether Mr. Chen would be allowed to return home and if the local officials, who allegedly abused him and his family, would be punished. Beijing was said to have promised him such an investigation.

"I hope that the government will fulfil the promises it made to me - all of its promises," Mr, Chen told the Associated Press yesterday.