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Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng heads to US

Blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng was hurriedly taken from a hospital and put on a plane for the United States on Saturday, closing a nearly month-long diplomatic tussle that had tested U.S.-China relations.

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The 40-year-old Chen is emblematic of a new breed of activists that the Communist Party finds threatening. Often from rural and working-class families, these "rights defenders," as they are called, are unlike the students and intellectuals from the elite academies and major cities of previous democracy movements and thus could potentially appeal to ordinary Chinese.

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Chen 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 seemed to wage a personal vendetta against him, convicting him in 2006 on what his supporters say were fabricated charges and then holding him for the past 20 months in illegal house arrest.

Even with the backstage negotiations, Chen's departure came hastily. Chen spent the last two and a half weeks in a hospital being given medical treatment for the foot he broke escaping house arrest. Only on 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.

Seeming ambivalent, Chen said that he was "not happy" about leaving and that he had a lot on his mind, including worries about retaliation against his extended family back home. His nephew, Chen Kegui, is accused of attempted murder after he allegedly used a kitchen knife to attack officials who stormed his house after discovering Chen Guangcheng was missing.

"I hope that the government will fulfill the promises it made to me, all of its promises," Chen said. Such promises included launching an investigation into abuses against him and his family in Shandong province, he said before the phone call was cut off.

Chen's expected attendance at New York University comes from his association with Jerome Cohen, a law professor at the university who advised Chen while he was in the U.S. Embassy. The two met when the activist went to the United States on a State Department program in 2003, and Cohen has been staunch advocate for him ever since.

Much as Chen has said he wants return to China, it remains uncertain whether the Chinese government would bar him, as they have done with many exiled activists.

"Chen's departure for the U.S. does not and should not in any way mark a 'mission accomplished' moment for the U.S. government," said Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The harder, longer term part is ensuring his right under international law to return to China when he sees fit."

Wu'er Kaixi, an exiled dissident who is on China's list of most wanted student leaders for the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, made a third unsuccessful attempt Saturday to turn himself in at a Chinese Embassy, this time in Washington, D.C.

However, Chen's friends and supporters cheered Chen's departure. Teng Biao, who had urged Chen after he left the U.S. Embassy to leave China for his personal safety, welcomed the family's departure.

"I feel happy that he and his family can have a normal, free life in the United States with their safety ensured," Teng said.

Nanjing activist blogger He Peirong, who picked Chen up outside his rural village after his escape and spirited him to Beijing, said, "I hope that this will be a good beginning."

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