BEIJING : Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng was on a plane headed for the United States with his family Saturday, US officials said, ending weeks of uncertainty for the now world-famous rights campaigner.
Chen’s escape from house arrest, turning up at the US embassy before leaving again, also caused a major diplomatic rift between Washington and Beijing, with China telling the US to keep its nose out of Chinese affairs.
“We can confirm that Chen Guangcheng, his wife and two children have departed China and are en route to the United States so he can pursue studies at an American university,” the US State Department’s spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
The departure of Chen, 40, caps an odyssey that began a month ago when he fled his rural home for the US mission in Beijing and later said he wanted to leave China for his and his family’s safety.
Chen had been told earlier in the day at short notice to pack his belongings and leave the Beijing hospital where he had been waiting for more than two weeks for permission to depart from China, taking his young family with him.
Once at the Beijing airport, Chen, his wife and two young children received the passports enabling their departure, he told a friend.
The United Airlines flight for New York believed to be carrying Chen and his family was originally scheduled at 3:45pm (0745 GMT) but left at about 6:00pm, according to airport staff.
Jiang Tianyong, a close friend of Chen’s, said the “barefoot”, or self-taught, lawyer had mixed feelings about leaving his home country.
“He seemed to be reluctant to leave and didn’t consider it the optimal solution, even though he agreed that it was the best he could do to ensure his personal safety,” Jiang, also a lawyer, told AFP.
Chen fled his closely guarded village home in the eastern province of Shandong on April 22 under the noses of plain-clothes security officers, with help from supporters.
In a video address to China’s Premier Wen Jiabao that was posted online, Chen said he had suffered repeated beatings while under house arrest since 2010, and expressed serious concerns for his wife and family.
He pitched up at the US embassy in Beijing, less than a week before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to visit China for one of the most important Sino-US meetings of the year.
Chinese and American diplomats scrambled to find a solution, and reached an initial agreement under which Chen would stay in China under less severe conditions.
Chen left the embassy but regretted it almost immediately, telling journalists that he now wanted to go to the United States. China later relented, saying he could apply to go abroad like every other Chinese citizen.
Chen, who has been invited to study law at New York University, was in touch Wednesday with Chinese officials, who told him they planned to give him a passport within 15 days.
In the event it was much quicker.
“We are looking forward to his arrival in the United States later today,” Nuland, of the US State Department, 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.”
One of China’s best-known activists, Chen has won plaudits for investigating rights abuses including forced sterilisations and late-term abortions under China’s “one-child” family planning policy, for which he served a jail term.
Bob Fu, the head of US-based organisation ChinaAid and a supporter of Chen, issued a statement thanking both the US and Chinese governments for making it possible for Chen and his family to leave.
“ChinaAid and the Chen family deeply appreciate the international community’s tireless efforts to gain his freedom, including both the efforts of the US embassy and the US Congress, who held two timely hearings on his behalf,” the statement said.
“Chen also wanted to express his gratitude to the Chinese government, who fulfiled one of its promises to allow his family to leave.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was “relieved” that Chen had been allowed to leave China, but said it was no time to declare a “mission accomplished”.
“The US 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,” it said.