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Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng grateful to be safe in U.S.

His case caused a diplomatic standoff and further complicated U.S.-China relations.

May 19, 2012|By Lisa Marscaro, Barbara Demick and Andrew Tangel, Washington Bureau
  • Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, center, arrives in the United States with his wife, Yuan Weijing, right, after years of confinement by Chinese authorities.
Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, center, arrives in the United States… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — After years of detention and a bold escape to the U.S. Embassyin Beijing, blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States, a bittersweet moment in a harrowing journey that had touched off a diplomatic crisis and poses continued challenges for U.S.-Chinese relations.

The human rights leader and his family were suddenly whisked out of Beijing, as Chen expressed gratitude but also concerns about the safety of the relatives he was leaving behind.

He arrived Saturday night in Newark, N.J., and was ferried to an apartment at New York University, where he will be a fellow at the School of Law.

"I am very gratified to see that the Chinese government has been dealing with the situation with restraint and calm, and I hope to see that they continue to open discourse and earn the respect and trust of the people," Chen said through an interpreter.

In Manhattan, his arrival was greeted by a crush of onlookers and cheering supporters, some bearing flowers. Chen, beaming, was walking on crutches as he limped from an injury he suffered during his escape.

"We should link our arms to continue in the fight for the goodness in the world and to fight against injustice," he said.

Chen has emerged as a political hero among Chinese dissidents and some U.S. officials for his activism in China — where his name is banned from the Internet — a status that became magnified after his escape from house arrest last month and secret flight totheU.S. Embassy. A self-taught lawyer, he had been imprisoned for years as an outspoken opponent of the state's treatment of women and its one-child policy.

The White House welcomed Saturday's developments.

"We are pleased with the efforts that have been made within our own government by the State Department and with Chinese authorities, and with Mr. Chen to reach this resolution," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor.

Chen, 40, was initially to remain in China but, in a dramatic series of events this month, spoke by telephone with a congressional hearing and sought help from U.S. lawmakers. A deal delicately brokered by U.S. officials with the Chinese government to protect Chen's safety appeared to unravel as he became concerned about possible further persecution in his country.

At the time, the White House came under criticism from human rights advocates for its handling of the situation, which likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called a "day of shame for the Obama administration."

Romney on Saturday commended U.S. officials for Chen's departure and said, "This episode underscores the need for the United States to forthrightly stand up for the human rights of the Chinese people."

At NYU's School of Law, Chen will study at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute with professors including Frank Upham and the institute's co-director, Jerome A. Cohen, who had championed Chen's case.

Chen has said he eventually wants to go back to China to continue his life's work, but in the past, dissidents have not been permitted to return to the country.

Congressional leaders welcomed Chen, his wife and their two children — Chinese law allows some disabled citizens to have more than one child — but said work remains to protect his extended family in China. Specifically, Chen raised concerns as he left Beijing about a nephew who faces potential criminal charges.

"America welcomes this extraordinary family with open arms," saidRep.Christopher H. Smith(R-N.J.), the chairman of a House subcommittee on human rights, who took Chen's unusual phone call while the hearing was in progress. He met Chen at the Newark airport.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the House minority leader, said Chen's arrival was a milestone for the cause of human rights in China, but "sadly, the plight of Chen Guangcheng's family is not over."

Chen's journey has complicated already challenging relations between Washington and Beijing, where Chinese officials have objected to what they see as inappropriate U.S. involvement in their domestic affairs.

Chen, who has been blind since early childhood, had fled his home detention to the U.S. Embassy hundreds of miles away just before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was arriving for previously scheduled talks in Beijing.

The Obama administration had been under criticism by human rights activists and dissidents earlier this month for appearing to have hastened Chen's departure from the U.S. Embassy to the hospital where he was treated for the foot injury. Washington disputed that claim.

The diplomatic crisis caught the administration between its intent to stand up for human rights and its interest in maintaining good relations with China.

In Beijing, Clinton was involved in talks that led to the deal, the White House said Saturday. Chen would be permitted to leave for the United States to study but would not necessarily seek permanent asylum.

Arrangements for him and his family to come to the United States had been underway, but he was given only hours' notice to prepare to leave. Chen had been in the Beijing hospital since leaving the U.S. Embassy.

Before he left Beijing, Chen said that he hoped others would take up the same causes, helping rural people resist abuses of officialdom.

"It can't depend on just one person. You need everyone to jump in. It is the only way you can defend the rights of ordinary people," Chen said.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

barbara.demick@latimes.com

andrew.tangel@latimes.com

Mascaro reported from Washington, Demick from Beijing and Tangel from New York.

Staff writers Paul Richter and Christi Parsons in Camp David, Md., contributed to this report.

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