Beijing: Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng on Saturday boarded a plane that took off for the United States.
Chen, his wife and their two children were on United Airlines Flight 88, which took off late Saturday afternoon from the Beijing airport. The flight is scheduled to arrive in Newark, New Jersey, on Saturday evening.
"Thousands of thoughts are surging to my mind," Chen told a news agency, sounding hurried but calm. To his supporters and others in the activist community, Chen expressed gratitude and indicated that he hoped to return.
"I am requesting a leave of absence, and I hope that they will understand," he said.
Earlier this morning, Chen was hurriedly taken to Beijing's airport from the hospital where he'd been staying.
Chen and his family were driven up to the plane in a vehicle resembling a minibus, and Chen could be seen being pushed in a wheelchair on the tarmac and then onto an elevator that took them up to a sky bridge that was connected to the plane.
Chen Guangcheng’s escape from a rural village had set off a diplomatic tussle between Beijing and Washington.
Chen and his family's departure to the United States marks the conclusion of nearly a month of uncertainty and years of mistreatment by local authorities for the self-taught legal activist who made a daring escape from abusive house arrest in his village last month.
His supporters welcomed his departure. "I think this is great progress. We are happy about it," said US-based rights activist Bob Fu. "It's a victory for freedom fighters."
Chen sought the protection of US diplomats at the American embassy in Beijing, triggering a diplomatic standoff days ahead of unrelated high-level talks on global hotspots and economic imbalances led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. After days of negotiations, the sides announced an agreement in which he and his family would be allowed to travel to the United States for him to study.
The departure of Chen, his wife and two children seemed hastily arranged and entirely orchestrated by Chinese and American officials with no apparent input from the activist.
Chen said he was informed at the hospital just before noon Saturday to pack his bags and get ready to leave. Officials did not give him and his family passports or inform them of their flight details until after they got to the airport.
Seeming ambivalent, Chen said that he was "not happy" about leaving and that he had a lot on his mind, including worries about retaliation against his extended family back home.
"I hope that the government will fulfil the promises it made to me, all of its promises," Chen said. Such promises included launching an investigation into abuses against him and his family in Shandong province, he said.
Chen and other activists fear authorities in Shandong province will punish Chen's extended family for his audacious escape.
(With Agency’s inputs)
First Published: Saturday, May 19, 2012, 11:43