Friday, human rights activist Chen Guangcheng arrived on United Airlines Flight 88 from Beijing to Newark to begin a new life after fleeing house arrest in China. On Saturday he held a press conference in front of his new home in Washington Square Village in New York City.
The self-taught legal activist, who campaigned for the disabled, women's rights and the welfare of the poor had been held under house arrest for almost 20 months, before he escaped on April 22 and made his way to Beijing where he sought refuge in the US embassy for six days. Meanwhile, the Chen crisis could not have come at a worse time for Chinese leaders. Still reeling from the worst political scandal in a decade, which led to the sacking of high-ranking official Bo Xilai, the leadership could not afford to look incompetent.
Chen left the United States embassy when the Chinese government gave him reassurances about his and his family's safety. Soon, the trust in the Chinese government deteriorated as the Chinese government kept Chen confined to a hospital for seventeen days and refused attempts by United States officials to visit him. Another "understanding" was made between the Chinese government and United States that Chen could leave the country. On May 19th the Chaoyang Hospital staff told Chen that he should prepare to leave immediately.
"I believe God was helping me," he told the South China Morning Post about his escape. China Aid's Bob Fu said, "He was hoping that he could stay in China to continue...the fight. But obviously he found that could not happen...Definitely, he will continue to speak up for the human rights abuses." Fu observed that for Chen his arrival in New York City "is a little bit of a bittersweet experience."
New York City is the home to a large number of exiled human rights activists, many of whom consider human rights as a result of God's law and special dignity given to each human being. Chen himself has campaigned by basing human rights on secular Chinese law, though many of his supporters and his own personal lawyer Teng Biao are Christians or are rooted in other faith traditions. A Journey through NYC religions has covered faith-based journalists and dissidents who now work from a base here in New York City. Scholars at New York University, Columbia University and other local colleges and universities, human rights organizations, reporters and columnists like Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, and others have made New York City one of the centers for the promotion of religious freedom around the world. In contrast to many places in the world, Mayor Bloomberg said in August 2010, "there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God's love and mercy."
Chen, accompanied by his wife and two young children, touched down at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey shortly after 6pm Friday, bringing an end to the month-long international saga that shook US-Chinese relations.
One of China's most prominent dissidents, he was invited to be a visiting scholar at New York University School of Law. Although he graduated from Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, Chen self-taught himself Chinese law.
Leaning on a crutch because of an injury suffered during his escape, he smiled and waved to a cheering crowd before speaking to reporters on Saturday.
"I am very gratified to see that the Chinese government has been dealing with the situation with restraint and calm, and I hope the central government will be more liberal and push for deeper reform and to keep the justice and equality of society and earn the respect and trust of the people," he said.
"I want to tell everyone that no matter what environment you are in, no matter how difficult it is, we can accomplish anything we really want to achieve. Nothing is impossible if you persist." Recalling a Chinese proverb, he summed up his work and that of the people who worked to rescue him, "There is no small affair as long as you put your heart into it."
Chen's most famous case was his 2005-2006 lawsuit against the forced abortions and sterilizations of thousands of women in a city in his native Shandong Province in northeastern China. Later, after Chen escaped being run over by Chinese security agents, the government charged him with the equivalent of a felony of "damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic." The United Nations Population Fund, which has a significant presence in China, repeatedly raised Chen's case with the Chinese government, and senior U.S. officials also pressed the government to release him. In May 2006, two United States diplomats who tried to visit Chen's wife were physically removed from the village by local officials. Local police overturned the car of Chinese lawyers defending Chen and beat them.