Blind dissident Chen Guangcheng and his immediate family have left China on a flight to the United States. They are expected to arrive in Newark, N.J., Saturday evening.
Their departure caps off three weeks of roller coaster diplomacy that reached the very highest levels of Chinese government and the White House.
The human rights activist is best known for his fight against forced abortions and sterilisations under the One Child Policy.
He served a four year prison sentence for what are widely believed to have been trumped up charges before being placed under a brutal, extra-judicial house arrest in his hometown province of Shandong.
Several media outlets, as well as human rights supporters in the U.S., cited late May as a potential departure date if all rules for passport applications were strictly adhered to.
But on Saturday, social media reports surfaced that said Chen had left the hospital. By midday, Chen spoke to the AFP and the Associated Press to say he was at the airport with his family and while he had no details, he believed they would be leaving that day.
State Dept Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that Chen and his family left China so he can pursue studies at an American university.
"We are looking forward to his arrival in the United States later today. We also express our appreciation for the manner in which we were able to resolve this matter and to support Mr. Chen's desire to study in the U.S. and pursue his goals," Nuland said.
His departure is in some ways bittersweet. His supporters by and large agree the only way he will be truly safe is outside China.
But for Chen, and dissidents before him, leaving is a compromise; he may be safer but he is also farther away from his cause.
Daring Escape AttemptOn April 22, Chen made a daring and highly risky escape with the assistance of his wife.
After several days in hiding, after a car chase and near arrest by Beijing authorities, he sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, April 27.
U. S. Officials were then tasked with an unusual request from a known dissident in any country: Chen wanted to remain in China with guarantees of safety and the freedom to continue his work.
Unlike the more straightforward process of securing asylum, U.S. officials embarked on an effort to strike an unprecedented deal with the Chinese that would satisfy all sides.
Soon after Secretary of State Hilary Clinton arrived in Beijing to attend a previously scheduled economic conference, the US announced a deal. The plan was for Chen to be released to a local hospital and, after receiving medical treatment, move to Tianjin, a city just outside Beijing where he would be able to pursue his legal studies. According to the US, the Chinese agreed to offer assurances of Chen's safety as well as investigate the past abuses committed against him.
Chen entered the hospital on Wednesday May 2. But within hours he changed his mind and the deal fell apart.
In numerous interviews over the phone with various media outlets, and in reports published online by his supporters, Chen said that he had misjudged the reality of living freely under Chinese rule.
He said he no longer felt that the safety of him or his family could ever be truly guaranteed. For that reason he wanted to leave China.
That sent U.S. officials into a tense period of re-negotiation while garnering international criticism for mishandling the case.
All the while, Secretary Clinton was in Beijing attending meetings with Chinese officials and participating in negotiations on Chen's future behind the scenes.
The drama reached a high point when Chen made a public plea to be allowed to fly on Secretary Clinton's plane when she left China. He also phoned into Washington to offer congressional testimony on his plight.
But whether China, which up until that point had not even acknowledged Chen's escape (or, for that matter, that he had been abused under house arrest) would even consider allowing him to leave was unclear. In China, saving face is critical. For the government to continue to play along, when Chen had so radically changed the chess board, it would require a rare willingness to be seen as diplomatically flexible.
But, just hours before Secretary Clinton was scheduled to leave Beijing a second deal was reached.
The Chinese announced that Chen would be permitted to obtain a student visa that would allow him to go abroad. The U.S. promptly announced that he and his family would be given the appropriate visas without delay and confirmed that New York University had extended him an invitation to be a visiting scholar.
The Chen family would need to be issued Chinese passports to travel, a process that would take time. On Saturday, Secretary Clinton left China without them.
In large degree the ball was now in the Chinese government's court.
As they waited, Chen continued to speak to the press. He voiced his outrage that his nephew, Chen Kegui, had been arrested and charged with attempted homicide.
Chen says he was acting in self-defense after local authorities attacked his house following Chen's escape. Chen said he had been in regular contact with US.. officials, and he praised their efforts to help him. But he also expressed frustration that the process was taking so long. Bittersweet Departure
Recently, the Texas-based activist Bob Fu of ChinaAid has demonstrated that it is possible to protest from afar and make a different sort of impact. Whether Chen can do the same will be seen in New York, where he has said he will continue to study human rights law.
Chen Guangcheng leaves the country that sought to silence him. He also leaves his mother, older brother, nephew and others; friends and family he may never see again. In some ways it was his choice; in others it wasn't .
What is clear is this: today, his new life begins.
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