Blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng said on Saturday he had left a hospital in Beijing and was at the airport where he expected to be departing for the United States, a move that would signal the end of a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
The self-taught lawyer’s plight became a major diplomatic incident when he fled house arrest last month for the U.S. embassy in Beijing and later said he wanted to leave China for his safety and that of his wife and two children.
“I’m at the airport. I do not have a passport. I don’t know when I will be leaving. I think I’m going to New York,” he told AFP by telephone from Beijing’s international airport.
Chen, 40, who told AFP he was with his wife, young daughter and son, said he thought Chinese authorities might hand the passport directly to US officials, who would then insert a US visa before giving it to him.
A United Airlines flight from the Chinese capital to New York that had been scheduled to take off at 3:45pm (0745 GMT) was delayed until 5:00pm. Airline staff refused to say if Chen was booked on that flight.
There was a large police presence at the airport, as well as officials from the Chinese foreign ministry. The U.S. embassy declined immediate comment.
Chen had been at a Beijing hospital with his immediate family since early this month, after he left the U.S. embassy, where he had sought refuge for several days.
He had led campaigns for farmers and disabled citizens and exposed forced abortions.
He was formally released in 2010 but remained under house arrest in his home village in northeastern Shandong province, which officials turned into a fortress of walls, security cameras and guards in plain clothes who kept Chen isolated.
Chen fled his closely guarded village home in the eastern province of Shandong on April 22 under the noses of plain-clothes security officers, with help from supporters.
In a video address to China’s Premier Wen Jiabao that was posted online, Chen said he had suffered repeated beatings while under house arrest since 2010, and expressed serious concerns for his wife and family.
He pitched up at the U.S. mission several days later, less than a week before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to visit China for one of the most important Sino-U.S. meetings of the year.
Chen, who has been invited to study law at New York University, was in touch Wednesday with Chinese officials, who told him they planned to give him a passport within 15 days.
The presence of the high-profile Chinese campaigner in the U.S. embassy sent diplomats on both sides scrambling for a solution.
Initially, Chen agreed to leave the embassy compound in return for a Chinese promise to let him stay in China under more tolerable conditions. He soon changed his mind, saying he did not feel safe and wanted to leave for the US.
Bob Fu, the head of U.S.-based organization ChinaAid and a supporter of Chen, issued a statement Saturday thanking both the U.S. and Chinese governments for apparently making it possible for Chen and his family to leave.
“ChinaAid and the Chen family deeply appreciate the international community’s tireless efforts to gain his freedom, including both the efforts of the U.S. embassy and the U.S. Congress, who held two timely hearings on his behalf,” it said.
“Chen also wanted to express his gratitude to the Chinese government, who fulfilled one of its promises to allow his family to leave.”
Fu said that it was “a great day for freedom fighters”, adding: “This further proves that constructive dialogues with international pressure can surely produce concrete positive results.”