A blind Chinese legal activist who was suddenly allowed to leave the country arrived Saturday evening in the United States, ending a nearly monthlong diplomatic tussle that had tested U.S.-China relations.
Chen Guangcheng had been hurriedly taken from a hospital hours earlier and put on a plane for the United States after Chinese authorities told him to prepare to leave. He arrived about 12 hours later at Newark Liberty International Airport and was whisked to New York City.
Using crutches and with his right leg in a cast, Chen was greeted with cheers when he arrived at the apartment in Manhattan's Greenwich Village where he will live with his family. The complex houses faculty and graduate students of New York University, where Chen is expected to attend law school.
"For the past seven years, I have never had a day's rest," he said through a translator. "So I have come here for recuperation for body and spirit."
Chen urged the crowd to fight injustice and thanked the U.S. and Chinese governments, as well as the embassies of Switzerland, Canada and France.
"After much turbulence, I have come out of Shandong," he said, referring to the Chinese province where he was under house arrest.
The arrival of Chen, his wife and two children in the United States marked the conclusion of nearly a month of uncertainty and years of mistreatment by local authorities for the self-taught activist.
After seven years of prison and house arrest, Chen made a daring escape from his rural village in April and was given sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy, triggering a diplomatic standoff over his fate. With Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Beijing for annual high-level discussions, officials struck a deal that let Chen walk free, only to see him have second thoughts about staying in China.
That forced new negotiations that led to an agreement to send him to the United States to study law.
"Thousands of thoughts are surging to my mind," Chen said before he left China on Saturday. His concerns, he said, included whether authorities would retaliate by punishing relatives he left behind. It also was unclear whether the government will allow him to return.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland praised the quiet negotiations that freed him. The White House also said it was pleased with the outcome.
China's Foreign Ministry said it had no comment.
"This is great progress," said U.S.-based rights activist Bob Fu. "It's a victory for freedom fighters."
Chen, 40, gained recognition for crusading for the disabled and for farmers' rights and fighting against forced abortions in his rural community. That angered local officials, who convicted him in 2006 on what his supporters say were fabricated charges and then held him for the past 20 months in illegal house arrest.
Chen's departure came hastily. He had spent the last 2 1/2 weeks in a hospital for the foot he broke escaping house arrest. Only Wednesday did Chinese authorities help him complete the paperwork needed for his passport.
Chen said by telephone Saturday that he was informed at the hospital just before noon to pack his bags to leave. Officials did not give him and his family passports or inform them of their flight details until after they got to the airport.
Chen said he was "not happy" about leaving and that he had a lot on his mind.
"I hope that the government will fulfill the promises it made to me, all of its promises," he said. The promises included launching an investigation into abuses against him and his family in Shandong province, he said.