Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠), the blind legal advocate who recently sought refuge in the US embassy in Beijing, arrived in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood on Saturday, holding the kind of open-air news conference that he could have never imagined while under virtual house arrest in China.
After a daylong and hastily arranged flight from Beijing, Chen stood on crutches — with a lawyer at his side and facing spectators cordoned off by police — and addressed a throng of reporters. He said he was grateful to the US embassy and the Chinese government, which allowed him to leave China, and thanked Chinese officials for “dealing with the situation with restraint and calm.”
“I hope to see that they continue to open discourse and earn the respect and trust of the people,” said Chen, one of China’s most prominent dissidents, who spoke through a translator near the New York University (NYU) apartment tower that will become his home.
The sudden ability to speak out was bittersweet, which Chen acknowledged in an interview on the plane. China has a pattern of allowing some especially vocal dissidents to leave the country to minimize the impact of their activism at home, and it is unclear if he will be able to effect change as easily from so far away, while he studies at NYU.
“I don’t really feel that happy, but rather sentimental,” he said in the brief interview. “After all the suffering for years, I don’t have those tearful moments anymore, but I do feel something inside.”
He looked calm, but his hands shook as he talked about leaving a country he has tried to change from within for years.
“I’m very clear what kind of role I’m playing right now,” he said. “Opportunity and risk exist at the same time.”
In Washington, the US Department of State praised Beijing.
“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,” department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
Her statement referred to the complex understanding — the Chinese were loath to call it a deal — in which Chen would be allowed to attend law school on a fellowship rather than seek asylum, which the authorities in Beijing would have considered an affront. School officials said they had already stocked a faculty apartment with Chinese food and new furniture for him.
On Saturday, Chen left Beijing with his wife and two children, and like most events surrounding his case, the departure was shrouded in secrecy. Chen and his family said they did not know they were leaving the country until several hours before the flight, and it was only on their way to the airport that they learned where they were heading. The passports they had been awaiting were delivered by Chinese officials shortly before the family got on a United Airlines airplane.
Once on board, flight attendants promptly drew a curtain around their business-class seats and barred other passengers in the cabin from using the bathroom while the plane was on the runway.
Speaking by cellphone before he boarded the flight, Chen told friends that he was excited to leave China, but was worried about the fate of relatives left behind.
Bob Fu (傅希秋), president of ChinaAid, a Christian advocacy group in Texas that championed Chen’s case, said: “He’s happy to finally have a rest after seven years of suffering, but he’s also worried they will suffer some retribution.”