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Chinese Activist Leaves Beijing For U.S.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Chen Guangcheng, the blind, Chinese human rights lawyer, is on a plane headed for America right now, according to his friends and supporters. Chinese authorities gave Mr. Chen a passport today and drove him to an airport in Beijing. His departure caps a remarkable few weeks that included a daring escape from house arrest and high-stakes, diplomatic negotiations.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has been following the story from Shanghai. Frank, thanks for being with us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And do we know where Mr. Chen is headed, what he plans to do?

LANGFITT: Well, we understand that he's on a flight to Newark and is scheduled to arrive late afternoon/early evening today. And the plan is to study at New York University Law School. And this was kind of a very clever way to get around an impasse between the U.S. and Chinese government. You know, the Chinese were furious that he got away from house arrest and Chen did not want to go into exile. So a New York University professor came up with the idea. He said well, why don't you come study in New York? And the Chinese government was able to say, sure, you know, there's no real big here. It's common for Chinese to go study in U.S. And this provided a face-saving way out, and kind of paved way departure for the departure today.

SIMON: Does this mean a happy ending?

LANGFITT: Yeah, certainly for Chen it's a happy ending for now, although I think he's ambivalent about going to the states. You know, as we know often Chinese dissidents, the minute they go overseas they become irrelevant. That's certainly - that's been the history. In some ways it's quite good about this is these two countries, the United States and China, were able to work out a deal, and China in a sense gave up quite a bit. This is a dissident who had humiliated them. And after all, you know, he'd gone to the U.S. Embassy. On other hand, one of the things here is this whole case shows how far China has to go to develop the rule of law. Leading up to this point, Chen had been jailed, he'd been beaten, he'd been under house arrest, all essentially because he challenged local authorities on illegal forced abortions. And the Central government didn't really do anything about this. And so what you have here is the world's second largest economy, an increasingly important country, but with no rule of law. And the government can kind of do what it wants.

SIMON: Frank, what do you think this case says about human rights and the relationship between China and the United States?

LANGFITT: Well, in one sense from a pragmatic perspective, it shows that neither side is going to let the human rights issue kind of hijacked the relationship. There's simply too much at stake these days. China holds more than trillion dollars of U.S. debt, and there's a lot of concern on other regional issues, like nukes in North Korea. The truth, though, is if you follow Chinese and U.S. relations over the last couple of decades, human rights really hasn't been a pivotal issue for a very long time and this kind of shows that.

SIMON: NPR's Frank Langfitt, speaking with us from Shanghai. Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese human rights lawyer is on the plane headed for America right now.

Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.