Chen Guangcheng: What's ahead for Chinese dissident now in the US?

Now that Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng has reached the United States, both Beijing and Washington are hoping to put what could have been a tense diplomatic situation behind them.

By , Staff writer

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    Chen Guangcheng meets his wife Yuan Weijing, daughter Chen Kesi, and son Chen Kerui at a hospital in Beijing May 2. U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke stands at Chen's right.
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Now that Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng has reached the United States, both Beijing and Washington are hoping to put what could have been a tense diplomatic situation behind them.

Mr. Chen’s flight from the Chinese capital arrived in Newark, New Jersey, about 6 p.m. Saturday.  From there, he was to travel to New York University in Manhattan where he has been invited to study as a fellow at the NYU School of Law.

Both Chinese and US officials issued low-key statements during the day.

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"Chen Guangcheng is a Chinese citizen. China's relevant departments have handled the procedures for exiting the country in accordance with the law," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement faxed to the Reuters news agency.

Senior White House official Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council praised the diplomacy that allowed Chen to come to the United States.

"We welcome this development and the fact that he will be able to pursue a course of study here in the United States," Rhodes said during the Group of Eight summit the United States is hosting at Camp David, Maryland. "We are pleased that this was able to reach a resolution."

China tightens restrictions on Chen Guangcheng's family

But Chen’s story inevitably draws attention to China’s record on human rights and freedom of political dissent.

“Chen isn’t just one guy, he is a symbol of thousands and thousands of other people who are trying to exercise their legal rights to seek change in what is, in many ways, an abusive status quo,” Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Bloomberg News.

Twice this month, Chen testified by phone to congressional committees, and some lawmakers say they intend to remain outspoken in their support for a man they liken to Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Chi.

"Great human rights leaders are never separated from the noble causes they espoused,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey in a statement Saturday.

"Not all the Chens are free and safe, however. The Chinese government must immediately end its deplorable retaliation against Chen's family and friends who remain in China,” said Rep. Smith, who chairs the House foreign affairs subcommittee that oversees human rights issues. “Over the last several days, several of Chen's relatives and supporters have been arrested and brutally beaten as part of the Chinese government's refocused retaliation. They can't beat him anymore, but they are beating his relatives and friends.”

Chen's abrupt departure for the airport came nearly three weeks after he arrived at the Chaoyang Hospital from the US Embassy, where he had taken refuge after an escape from 19 months under house arrest in his home village.

Chen, 40, who taught himself law, was a leading advocate of the rights defense movement. He gained prominence by campaigning for farmers and disabled citizens and exposing forced abortions and sterilizations. He was jailed for a little more than four years starting in 2006 on what he and his supporters say were trumped-up charges designed to end his rights advocacy.

He had accused Shandong province officials in 2005 of forcing women to have late-term abortions and sterilizations to comply with strict family planning policies. Authorities moved against him with charges of whipping up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.

Formally released in 2010, Chen remained under house arrest in his home village, which officials turned into a fortress of walls, security cameras and plainclothes guards.

As Chen prepared to leave China Saturday, his friends spoke wistfully of him.

"I'm obviously very happy," Jiang Tianyong told Reuters. "When he boards the plane, he can finally say: 'I'm free'. At the same time, I feel a sense of regret because such a large country like China can't even tolerate a citizen like him to exist here."

This report includes material from the Reuters news agency.

China tightens restrictions on Chen Guangcheng's family

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