Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in New York on Saturday to begin a new life in the United States, declaring “equality and justice have no boundaries” after China let him leave a Beijing hospital to quell a sensitive diplomatic rift between the two countries.
But while the blind human rights lawyer enjoyed his first hours in the American city after years of jail and detention, relatives and supporters back home remained locked down by security authorities.
Chen’s escape last month from 19 months of detention in his home village in eastern China and his six-day stay in the U.S. embassy in Beijing exposed embarrassing gaps in the web of security that the ruling Communist Party uses to stifle dissent.
He plans a break from that pressure after his arrival in the United States to take up a fellowship at New York University.
But the continued pressure on Chen’s family in Shandong province and on activists who supported him shows that his flight does not mean China will relax its grip on dissent.
“There won’t be any big changes for us now that Chen Guangcheng has left. There are still many reasons to keep up control and stability preservation,” Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing human rights lawyer, said in a telephone interview, referring to the Communist Party’s terms for controlling dissidents.
Meanwhile, Chen asked to say a “few simple words” as he, his wife Yuan Weijing, and their two young children were greeted with cheers on arrival at the New York University apartment block in Manhattan Saturday that now becomes their home.
He expressed gratitude to the American embassy for ushering him to a new, free life in the United States but added: “I am gratified the Chinese government dealt with the situation with restraint and calm.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Chen said he believed the Chinese government’s promises were “sincere,” although friends of the dissident said he was clearly very worried about the fate of relatives left behind.
One of China’s best-known activists, Chen, a self-taught lawyer, won plaudits for investigating forced sterilizations and late-term abortions under China’s “one-child” family planning policy.
He and his family touched down at Newark-Liberty International Airport, outside New York, on a United Airlines flight from Beijing shortly before 2230 GMT, capping an astonishing odyssey.
Chen, 40, taught himself law and was a leading figure in China’s “rights defence” movement, which has sought to use litigation and publicity to expand citizens’ rights and freedoms. He was jailed for four years from 2006 on what he and his supporters said were false charges.
Although Chen is more popular than most other dissidents, tight media controls have ensured that few in China know of him.
China has blocked search results of Chen’s name on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging platform, and censors rapidly delete any references to him in postings.
Chen made a dramatic escape from his village in April after seven years spent mostly in prison or under house arrest, eventually securing sanctuary at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
In a gripping account of his escape, Chen told AFP news agency earlier this month that after weeks of preparation to put his guards off the scent, his wife pushed him over a wall built around his small home.
He broke his foot when he landed on the other side, but undeterred, he scrambled in pain to a neighbor’s pig sty, where he hid until nightfall.
After a long and painful journey through fields and over walls, he eventually made his way to the home of a friend.
Chen, who had been held under house arrest since being released from a four-year jail term in September 2010, fled his home in the eastern province of Shandong on April 22 under the noses of plain-clothes security officers.
In a video address to China’s Premier Wen Jiabao posted online, Chen said he had suffered repeated beatings and expressed serious concerns for his wife and family.
He pitched up at the U.S. embassy in Beijing less than a week before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to visit China for high-level talks.
Chinese and American diplomats scrambled to find a solution, and reached an initial agreement under which Chen would stay in China under more agreeable conditions.
Chen left the embassy but regretted it almost immediately, telling journalists that he wanted to go to the United States. China later relented, saying he could apply to go abroad like any other Chinese citizen.
After being holed up for more than two weeks at a Beijing hospital with his fate still uncertain, Chen was suddenly given notice earlier Saturday to pack up his belongings and prepare for departure.
Jiang Tianyong, a lawyer and close friend, said Chen had mixed feelings about leaving China.
“He seemed to be reluctant to leave and didn’t consider it the optimal solution, even though he agreed that it was the best he could do to ensure his personal safety,” Jiang said.
U.S. politicians welcomed Chen’s arrival but many also expressed concern about his family and other dissidents who remain in China fearing repression.
“We remain deeply concerned, however, that Mr. Chen’s supporters and family members who remain in China face the real threat of retaliation from Chinese officials,” read a statement from the Congressional Executive Commission on China, set up in 2001 to monitor human rights there.
“The Chinese government must guarantee their safety and well-being, and ensure that their fundamental rights to free expression, liberty of movement, and access to counsel are fully protected.”