Throughout his 17 days of government-imposed isolation at a Beijing hospital, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng has, with the exception of a brief confab with American diplomats, only had a cellphone as his link to the world. Seven long years of various forms of detention should have taken a greater toll. Yet each phone conversation we at TIME have had with him, Chen has surprised us with his calm, soft-spoken demeanor. But early on the afternoon on May 19, Chen’s voice changed. He was positively ecstatic, his excitement thrumming over the phone line. “I’m at the airport, and I’m going to the U.S.,” he told my colleague Chengcheng Jiang. “I’m standing in line and about to go through the security check.”
A mundane chore like airport security must have felt like a benediction of sorts for a man who the Chinese authorities have taken great pains to confound for so long. In 2005, Chen drew the ire of officials in China’s eastern Shandong province for having the temerity to advocate on behalf of Chinese women who were subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations stemming from a misapplication of China’s one-child policy. Even in 2010, after he was released from jail on trumped-up charges of “disturbing traffic” and “destroying property,” Chen and his wife disappeared into house arrest in their stone farmhouse. The detention was illegal, but no one in either the local or central levels of Chinese government did anything to stop it. Diplomats, activists and journalists who tried to visit him were beaten back by plainclothes hooligans. Finally, on April 22, Chen chose the cover of night, when his blindness conferred a slight advantage, to sneak over walls and past a bevy of guards to freedom. The escape took hours before he met up with citizen activists who helped spirit him to Beijing, where he eventually sought protection from the American embassy. Staying there for six days, he rejected the possibility of asylum in the U.S. and instead emerged on May 2 from the Embassy, after being promised by the Chinese side that he would be treated as a normal citizen.
But upon checking in at Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital, where he was treated for injuries sustained during his dramatic escape from house arrest, the lie in the government’s promise to treat him like a normal citizen was quickly exposed. Far from being allowed freedom, Chen was confined to his room, unable to even visit the hospital grounds. American diplomats found face-to-face access to him blocked. Foreign journalists who tried to visit him were warned that simply stepping foot in a major Beijing hospital would result in their visas being revoked.
Overwhelmed and aware of the tremendous pressure his family was under, Chen soon changed his mind about staying in China to continue his legal advocacy. After all, it was becoming clear that his chances of being allowed to truly effect change through the law were slim at best. So Chen voiced a desire to go to America to rest, telling a U.S. Congressional committee by phone that he hadn’t had a day off in seven years. New York University, where his longtime friend and supporter, Chinese legal expert Jerome Cohen, is based, ponied up with a fellowship. The Americans said a visa would be no problem. For their part, the Chinese were still insisting that Chen was being treated normally, even as he was held hostage in a hospital room. Chen—who had reunited with his wife and two children at Chaoyang Hospital—filled out passport applications and were told that they would be receiving the documents in 15 days’ time. But given the callousness with which he has been treated for long, it seemed foolhardy to take the Chinese side fully at its word, even as Chen himself told us that he believed he would be allowed to leave China.
Indeed, the Chinese government appears to have left Chen in the dark until the last moment. In the late morning of May 19, Chaoyang Hospital staff suddenly came into his room and told him that he, his wife and their two young children should pack their bags immediately because they were going to the airport. Whisked into a car, they arrived at the Beijing airport utterly confused. Despite Chen being told that he was going to board a plane soon to America, he and his family still had no passports or visas in their hands. No Chinese officials were with them, nor were any American diplomats. Only staff from Chaoyang Hospital had come with them. “All I know is that they will send me to the plane soon,” he told TIME from the airport, soon after arriving. “And then I’ve been told that people from New York University will pick me up on the other end.”
A couple hours later, Chen and his family indeed boarded a direct flight to Newark airport, near New York. They were escorted onto the plane via a special vehicle that drove onto the tarmac and circumvented normal boarding procedures. The four family members are expected to arrive in the U.S. on Saturday early evening local time. “We’re relieved that the Chinese government has respected Chen Guangcheng’s wishes and his right to travel abroad,” says Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher at the New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch. “However, Chen’s departure for the U.S. does not and should not in any way mark a ‘mission accomplished’ moment for the U.S. government or any other government which values human rights and rule of law in China. The fact is that 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.”
On May 18, the day before he made his way to the airport, I asked Chen by phone whether he thought he would be permitted to return to China after going abroad. After all, exiled Chinese who stand up to the government don’t tend to be allowed back home. The best outcome for a Chinese regime that flinches at outspoken criticism is that the wayward citizen ends up living an existence of irrelevant banishment. Chen answered my question with an explosion of laughter. Catching his breath, he said: “I think it’s too early to talk about that. I haven’t even left yet. The central government has promised me they will protect my rights and freedoms as a citizen. Traveling is one of my rights. So I think I’m free to travel between China and other countries.”
During his time at Chaoyang Hospital, Chen was forced to stay in his room, eating food delivered from the hospital canteen. (At the hospital, his wife, who had been under house arrest with him, was found to be suffering from severe malnutrition and anemia, a symptom of a life that Chen told us was “worse than that of a prisoner.”) But his children, one who was especially harassed back in Shandong, relished life at the Beijing hospital. “My kids said to me the other day, ‘Dad, it’s so great to be here,’” Chen said on May 18. “They said, ‘we can even go out to play for a little while in the yard.’ I felt so sad. You can see how much we were abused in our life in Shandong.”
Back home, his mother is being confined to their farmhouse, which now has an electric fence being built around it. Chen’s nephew Chen Kegui is facing charges of attempted murder, after he slashed a knife at intruders in his home, who turned out to be local officials furious to discover that Chen had escaped house arrest. Two lawyers who traveled to Shandong to try to represent the nephew were told that he had given up his right to choose a lawyer. Chen thinks that’s ridiculous. “That was exactly what they did to me,” he said. “They forced me to take the lawyer they assigned.” Chen says a local official named Zhang Jian led a group of thugs into his nephew’s home in the middle of the night and beat Chen’s brother (who is Chen Kegui’s father). Then they began attacking Chen Kegui and his mother. “They beat him so badly that they even broke the sticks they were using as a weapon,” says Chen, after having spoken to his family back home. “It was under this situation that Kegui fought back. If he didn’t he would have been beaten to death. How can they accuse my nephew of murder?”
The central government has promised Chen that they will investigate the abuses in Shandong, both toward his family and those related to the forced abortion and sterilization campaign. Precedent suggests that full justice may not be meted out. After all, it’s impossible that the central government did not know about Chen’s plight for all those years, given the media coverage surrounding his case. Now, it appears they have done nothing to stop local officials from continuing to harass his family and prevent journalists from seeing them. But Chen on May 18 chose his words carefully: “I don’t have enough information to judge,” he said. “I was suffering from an extreme lack of information [under house arrest]. We can only judge something based on facts. I would rather believe that they didn’t know, but that they know now. As long as they are on the right track when it comes to my case, I will trust them.”
As he left his homeland, Chen may finally have cause for a modicum of trust. But the fate of his family back in Shandong is undecided. Punishment of the officials who oversaw his long detention is by no means guaranteed. And I’m certainly not convinced that Chen will be allowed back home after he goes abroad. Still, at least, a brave man who has suffered for years may be able to rest and enjoy a New York spring. When my colleague and I spoke to him earlier this month, Chen said that he had asked Chaoyang Hospital staff whether he could go outside for a little bit of sunshine. The hospital employees refused. For a man locked up for so long, the warmth of the sun on his face, even in a faraway land, will be a small miracle.
—with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang/Beijing