BEIJING -- Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng left for the United States on Saturday in the latest chapter of a dramatic odyssey that began with his escape a month ago from house arrest and flight to the U.S. Embassy.
A van with blacked-out windows whisked the 40-year-old activist, his wife and two children to the airport from a Beijing hospital, where he was being treated for a foot broken during the escape. Evading a scrum of journalists, the family waited in a VIP area until the United Airlines flight bound for Newark, N.J., departed shortly before 6 p.m. Beijing time.
The sudden departure came as a surprise as Chen and family were still in the process of applying for passports. Although he had been told to keep his bags packed, Chen was not informed until a few hours before departure that they would be leaving Saturday.
In a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times late Friday, Chen expressed mixed emotions -- gratitude over his own escape and trepidation about relatives left behind in Shandong province where the family has been persecuted for years.
He referred specifically to a nephew, Chen Kegui, who is being charged with attempted homicide as a result of a skirmish with local officials after Chen’s escape. Last week, his lawyers were not permitted to meet with him and authorities said that they had appointed other counsel instead. “This is the same thing they did when I was being charged in 2006. When they separate you from your lawyers, they can do anything they want to control your case."
Chen said he hoped that others would take up the same causes, helping rural people resist the 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," said Chen.
Blind since early childhood, Chen trained himself as a lawyer and took up the cause of forced abortion and forced sterilizations ordered by zealous local officials enforcing China’s one-child policy. He served almost four years in prison on charges of damaging property and obstructing traffic -- as a result of a protest. Released in September 2010, he was confined to an unusually harsh house arrest, his home turned into a virtual prison, closed off by metal shutters, fences and walls. Supporters who tried to visit him, the most prominent being actor Christian Bale, were roughed up by local thugs.
In the human rights community, Chen’s departure was seen as both a victory and a defeat. After escaping to the U.S. Embassy, Chen initially said he wanted to remain in China, studying law here and continuing his life’s work. But he quickly changed his mind, after other activists warned him that his safety and that of his family couldn’t be guaranteed in China.
The Obama administration, under criticism for booting Chen out of the embassy, delicately crafted a deal under which Chen would be permitted to leave for the United States to study, but would not necessarily seek permanent asylum.
“So many people were involved from both governments that they had to keep their commitment to maintain credibility," said Bob Fu, a Texas-based activist with ChinaAid, who had been helping Chen. But he conceded that authorities too had reason to want Chen safely out of the country in a tumultuous transition year in which activists are becoming increasingly bold in calling for reform. “They wanted to remove the continued media attention and anxiety over this case."
Chen’s name is banned from the Chinese media and Internet. Most ordinary Chinese know nothing about the international diplomatic crisis triggered by Chen’s escape. That much was evident Saturday at Beijing International Airport, where other passengers and Chinese airline staff looked genuinely baffled by the pack of journalists that had arrived to report on Chen’s departure.
"Never heard of him," said a young woman who gave her name as Yang, waiting for a flight to Shenzhen.
Chen is expected to attend law school in the United States, most likely at New York University, where Jerome Cohen, a leading professor, has been one of his advisors and champions. He has said that afterward he hoped to return to China to continue his life’s work.
In the past, however, dissidents who have left China have not been permitted to return. That dilemma was underscored Friday when Wuer Kaixi, one of the student demonstrators in the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square, exiled for 23 years, attempted to surrender himself on an open warrant at the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
A close friend and fellow dissident, Jian Tianyong, explained his mixed emotions over Chen’s departure this way:
“I am really happy for Chen and his family. It is like a big stone hanging in my heart has finally fallen away. At the same time, I feel very sad to see such a good friend be farther away from us. And it’s sad to see that a good person like him can’t even stay in our country.”
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: A van with tinted windows leaves under tight security Saturday from the hospital where Chen Guangcheng had been recuperating in Beijing. Credit: Ng Han Guan / Associated Press