China suddenly allowed a blind legal activist, Chen Guangcheng, to leave a hospital in Beijing yesterday and board a plane bound for the United States, in a move that could signal the end of a diplomatic stand-off between the two countries.
Mr Chen's escape from house arrest in north-eastern China last month and subsequent stay in the US embassy caused huge embarrassment for China and led to a diplomatic rift while the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was visiting Beijing for talks to improve ties between the world's two biggest economies.
Yesterday, Mr Chen, his wife and two children flew into Newark, New Jersey, on a United Airlines flight. "Thousands of thoughts are surging to my mind," he said as he left China.
In the first official account of Mr Chen's activities, the state news agency Xinhua said he had applied to study in the US under legal procedures. The Foreign Ministry said this month that Mr Chen could apply to study abroad – a move seen as a way of easing Sino-US tensions on human rights. Beijing has accused America of meddling in its affairs in the Chen case.
Mr Chen's friend, Jiang Tianyong, cited the activist, one of China's most prominent dissidents, as saying that he and his family obtained their passports at the airport hours before they were due to board their flight.
Mr Chen is expected to head to New York University's law school having previously been offered a position as a "visiting scholar" there. The move follows his association with Jerome Cohen, a law professor there who advised Chen while he was in the US Embassy. "I look forward to welcoming him and his family tonight and to working with him on his course of study," Mr Cohen said. Mr Chen and his family are due to be offered university accommodation.
A statement by Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, struck a conciliatory note, saying Washington was "looking forward" to Mr Chen's arrival.
"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 US and pursue his goals," it said.
Mr Chen's abrupt departure for the airport came about three weeks after he arrived at the Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing from the US embassy, where he had taken refuge after an escape from 19 months under house arrest in his home village, Dongshigu, in Shandong, eastern China.
Mr Chen, 40, who taught himself law, is a leading advocate of the human rights movement. He gained prominence by campaigning for farmers and disabled citizens, and exposing forced abortions.
He was jailed for a little over four years from 2006 on what he and his supporters say were trumped-up charges designed to end his rights advocacy. He had accused Shandong officials in 2005 of forcing women to have late-term abortions and sterilisations to comply with strict family-planning policies.
The authorities moved against him with charges of whipping up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property. Formally released in 2010, he remained under house arrest in his home village, which officials turned into a fortress of walls, security cameras and guards in plain clothes.
The United Airlines flight UA 88 departed around mid-morning British time, after Chinese police and plain-clothes officers had followed passengers down the corridor leading to the plane's door.
Mr Chen had earlier told Reuters that he was at the airport along with his wife, two children and hospital staff and he believed he would be put on a flight to the United States. Two police cars were stationed below the walkway to the plane, and about 10 security officials in plain clothes circulated around the airport.
Passengers at the gate to Mr Chen's flight appeared not to know that he would be on the same flight.
When asked about the activist, Xi Jingwen, one man waiting to board a flight to the United States, said: "If our country is a body, his plight is like a sickness that in the future will help the body to protect and strengthen itself." .
Mr Chen's confinement, his escape and the furore that ensued have made him part of China's dissident folklore: a blind prisoner outfoxing Communist Party controls – an echo of the man who stood down an army tank near Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The Chen case comes at a difficult time for China, which is engaged in a leadership change. The carefully choreographed transition has already been knocked out of step by the downfall of the ambitious senior Communist Party official Bo Xilai in a scandal linked to the apparent murder of a British businessman.
Mr Chen's supporters welcomed the blind man's departure, saying he had indicated that he would like to return to China.
Phelim Kine, senior Asia researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said, in an emailed statement, "getting Chen Guangcheng and his family on a plane is the easiest part of this saga. The harder, longer-term part is ensuring his right under international law to return to China when he sees fit". Mr Kine urged Western countries to ensure that Mr Chen's relatives, friends and supporters secured due protection.
The US embassy had earlier thought it had stuck a deal to allow Mr Chen to stay in China without retribution, but that fell apart as the activist grew worried about his family's safety. He changed his mind about staying and asked to travel to the United States.
Human rights continue to bedevil relations between China and the US, even though Washington needs China's help on issues such as Iran, North Korea, Sudan and the global economy.
Access to the village of Dongshigu, where Mr Chen's mother and other relatives remain, is still restricted.
His nephew, Chen Kegui, was denied his family's choice of lawyers on Friday to defend a charge of "intentional homicide". This is the latest in a series of moves to deny him legal representation, another indication of the hard-line stance taken against the blind dissident's family.Reuse content