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Blind Chinese activist turns face toward sun during first day of freedom

Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng (centre) is helped by his wife Yuan Weijing (right) after arriving in New York May 19, 2012.


Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident lawyer, spent his first day of freedom resting in his new apartment in a 17-storey high rise in Manhattan's Greenwich Village that features a leafy courtyard, underground parking and brightly coloured children's playground.

It was a dramatic shift for Mr. Chen, his wife and their two children – one that their New York University hosts sought to make smoother by stocking the family's fridge with Chinese food before they arrived. Their new apartment was also filled with new furniture. Several strangers left gifts for the family at the building, including stuffed animals for the children.

Almost a month after he triggered a diplomatic crisis by escaping from house arrest in rural China and taking refuge in the American embassy in Beijing, Mr. Chen arrived at Newark International Airport Saturday night. He appeared calm, even conciliatory, when speaking about his ordeal with reporters after his flight touched down.

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He said he was grateful to the American government and the Chinese government, which allowed him to leave China to study law at NYU, and thanked Chinese officials for "dealing with the situation with restraint and calm."

"I hope to see that they continue open discourse and earn the respect and trust of the people," he said, dressed in a white shirt, khaki pants and still hobbling on crutches after breaking his right foot during his daring escape.

He vowed to continue his fight for human rights in his homeland. For now, however, he will be working to improve his English and studying comparative law at New York University School of Law on a fellowship, and is not seeking asylum. The arrangement is part of the delicate diplomatic compromise that allowed him to come to the United States without authorities in Beijing losing face.

"For the past seven years, I have never had a day's rest," said Mr. Chen, , "so I have come here for a bit of recuperation for body and in spirit. … It's as the Chinese saying goes: 'Nothing in the world is difficult for one who sets his mind to it.'"

Many have expressed concern about the fate of Mr. Chen's family and other activists that remain in China, fearing repression.

"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 and friend of Mr. Chen told the Associated Press, referring to the Communist Party's terms for controlling dissidents.

Mr. Jiang himself remains under house arrest, despite promises from the authorities that he would be freed.

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Of particular concern to Mr. Chen is the fate of his nephew, who is facing charges of attempted murder after an altercation with Chinese security officials who visited him after his uncle's escape.

Mr. Chen had lived as a prisoner in his own home for nearly 20 months before his nighttime escape and subsequent flight to the U.S. Embassy.

First he said he wished to remain in China, then he backtracked, appealing to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. Congress for help in leaving China.

In the process, Mr. Chen found himself at the centre of a dramatic tug of war between two superpowers, with China accusing the United States of interfering in its internal affairs and Washington under international pressure to stand up for Mr. Chen's human rights.

In the end, Mr. Chen's departure from China was sudden. He and his wife left the Beijing hospital where he was being treated for his injuries without any interference from Chinese officials. They received passports after arriving at the airport in Beijing.

"They came in and told us to get everything together at 12:30 and we left at 1 o'clock," his wife, Yuan Weijing, told the Wall Street Journal in an interview.

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The family's long-term future remains unclear. Mr. Chen, who rose to prominence for his help in exposing forced abortions performed under China's one-child policy, has vowed to continue his advocacy work, but his influence while in the United States, will be limited in his homeland.

If he elects to change his mind and seek asylum, Washington would meanwhile find itself in another bind.

For now, the two countries' tenuous compromise appears to be working. China has ridden itself of one of its most prominent dissidents. Meanwhile, Mr. Chen and his family have found a moment of respite.

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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