NEW YORK: Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng began a new life in the United States on Saturday, drawing a line under a month-long diplomatic saga that embarrassed Beijing and tested ties between the world superpowers.
Chen, accompanied by his wife Yuan Weijing and their two children, aged eight and six, arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport, outside New York, on a United Airlines flight from Beijing shortly before 2330 GMT.
The family was expected to make a statement in New York before spending their first night on US soil in a Manhattan apartment.
His arrival capped an astonishing odyssey. Chen made a dramatic escape from his village in April after more than seven years either in prison or house arrest, eventually securing sanctuary at the US embassy in Beijing.
In a gripping account of his escape, Chen told AFP that after weeks of preparation to put his guards off the scent, his wife pushed him over a wall built around his small home.
He broke his foot when he landed on the other side, but undeterred, he scrambled in pain to a neighbor's pig sty, where he hid until nightfall.
After a long and painful journey through fields and over walls, he eventually made his way to the home of a friend.
His shock arrival at the US embassy sparked an international row that threatened to damage China-US relations and officials hastily struck a deal to let Chen go free -- an agreement that appeared to suit both sides.
That accord hit a snag before protracted negotiations secured a new agreement to allow him to participate in a fellowship at New York University.
After being holed up for more than two weeks at a Beijing hospital with his fate uncertain, Chen was suddenly given notice earlier Saturday to pack up his belongings and prepare for departure.
"I'm at the airport. I do not have a passport. I don't know when I will be leaving. I think I'm going to New York," he told AFP earlier by telephone.
But once at the airport, Chen told a friend that he had finally received the passports for himself and his family.
Jiang Tianyong, a lawyer and close friend, said Chen had mixed feelings about leaving China.
"He seemed to be reluctant to leave and didn't consider it the optimal solution, even though he agreed that it was the best he could do to ensure his personal safety," Jiang said.
One of China's best-known activists, Chen won plaudits for investigating forced sterilizations and late-term abortions under China's "one-child" family planning policy.
US politicians welcomed Chen's arrival but expressed concern also about his family and other dissidents who remain in China fearing repression.
"I remain gravely concerned about Chen's relatives and fellow human rights advocates who remain in China and face retribution by a Beijing regime that denies the most fundamental freedoms to the Chinese people," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican who chairs the House of Representatives' foreign affairs committee.
Chen, who had been held under house arrest after being released from a four-year jail term in September 2010, fled his home in the eastern province of Shandong on April 22 under the noses of plain-clothes security officers.
In a video address to China's Premier Wen Jiabao posted online, Chen said he had suffered repeated beatings and expressed serious concerns for his wife and family.
He pitched up at the US embassy in Beijing less than a week before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was due to visit China for high-level talks.
Chinese and American diplomats scrambled to find a solution, and reached an initial agreement under which Chen would stay in China under more agreeable conditions.
Chen left the embassy but regretted it almost immediately, telling journalists that he wanted to go to the United States. China later relented, saying he could apply to go abroad like any other Chinese citizen.
As a research fellow at NYU, Chen is expected to work with other law school experts.
"I look forward to welcoming him and his family tonight, and to working with him on his course of study," said Jerome Cohen, co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at the NYU School of Law.
Li Jinsong, a friend and lawyer, said Chen's impact may lessen after the self-taught "barefoot lawyer" famed for his grassroots work reaches the US.
"But he and his family have been through much hardship over the past seven and eight years, and I'm happy that they can go abroad and enjoy a bit of safety and freedom," he said.
The United States is "looking forward" to Chen's arrival, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said earlier, expressing "appreciation for the manner in which we were able to resolve this matter and to support Mr Chen's desire to study in the US and pursue his goals." (AFP)