Updated at 8:30 p.m. EST on 2012-05-19
Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng arrived in New York on Saturday, nearly a month after escaping house arrest and seeking sanctuary at the American embassy in an ordeal that had triggered a diplomatic crisis.
The plane carrying Chen along with his wife and two children landed in Newark, New Jersey, Saturday evening, as the dissident made his way to New York to begin a new life studying law.
After reaching Manhattan, Chen—one of China's most prominent activists and a crusading lawyer who had exposed forced abortions and sterilizations under the country's "one-child" policy—said he was grateful Chinese officials had handled his situation with "restraint and calm," but also that he hoped they were "sincere and not lying" in pledging to protect his rights as a citizen.
"I hope to see that they continue to open discourse and earn the respect and trust of the people," he told reporters outside an apartment complex near New York University, where he has been offered a fellowship.
Before the family's arrival, the White House said it was pleased with efforts by China to reach a resolution to the diplomatic standoff.
"We welcome this development and the fact that he will be able to pursue a course of study here in the U.S.," said Ben Rhodes, a national security advisor.
"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," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said after the plane left Beijing.
China's Foreign Ministry acknowledged he had left the country. "Chen Guangcheng is a Chinese citizen. China's relevant departments have handled the procedures for exiting the country in accordance with the law," the ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters.
But concerns remain about his relatives still in Shandong province, where the village from which Chen escaped is under lockdown.
His nephew, Chen Kegui, is in detention facing charges of “deliberate homicide” for defending himself from guards with a knife on the day the dissident escaped.
The lawyer's older brother, Chen Guangfu, was "tortured" while in the hands of local police in the immediate aftermath of the escape, a Hong Kong-based rights group says.
"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," U.S. lawmakers Chris Smith and Sherrod Brown of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China said in a statement after Chen's arrival.
"The Chinese government must also fulfill its promise to investigate the illegal actions taken against Mr. Chen, and demonstrate that China respects the rule of law," they said.
Earlier on Saturday in Beijing, Chen and his wife and two children were rushed from the Chaoyang hospital to the Beijing airport before receiving their passports.
"Thousands of thoughts are surging to my mind," Chen said before boarding the flight, indicating he hoped to return to China one day. "I am requesting a leave of absence, and I hope that they will understand."
Chen's arrival ends nearly a month of uncertainty over his fate after the activist outwitted guards around his home in Dongshigu village on April 22 and made his way to Beijing, where he sought diplomatic help at the American embassy.
Chen's six-day stay at the embassy, coinciding with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for high-level talks, ended May 2, when he agreed to leave the compound after receiving guarantees he could live safely in China.
But Chen had a change of heart shortly after he was escorted to a hospital where he was reunited with his family, telling reporters he feared for his safety and wanted to go to the U.S.
Following further negotiations between American and Chinese officials, the two sides announced an agreement in which he would be allowed to go to the U.S. to study.
He Peirong, the activist and blogger who helped drive Chen to Beijing from Shandong, said earlier Saturday she was "very happy" he was on his way to the U.S.
"I hope that this will be a good beginning," He said. "I hope that they will all be well and safe."
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.