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Escape to New York

Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng speaks to members of the media after arriving in New York Photo: Reuters

Watching pictures of Chen Guangcheng and his familyarriving at their new home on a University campus in New York you can't help thinking of the incredible journey that took a blind, untrained but self taught lawyer and human rights campaigner from rural Shandong province in Eastern China to one of the world's most developed cities, and a new life.

What he couldn't see but could clearly sense and hear wasthe warm welcome he was getting from students and the public.

Cheers andapplause from a crowd, that's not something he's ever heard before. In China the crowds in his village were the hired mobs who pushed and shoved and forcedsupporters and reporters to leave. The local authorities had him under house arrest, angered by his campaigns against forced abortions and sterilisations.

He'll now be tired and jet lagged after the 13 hourflight but also, perhaps, he'll be really sleeping soundly for the first timein years for other reasons.

During many phone calls during the last few weekswhich we've had with him he'd mentioned that he "hadn't really ever had a Sunday" for almost 7 years meaning he'd never had a day off from being persecuted.

Jailed for four years and then illegally detained under house arrest for almost two he and his family had been under constant brutal pressure. There were also sleepless nights as the deal was done to let him leave China.

Chen talking to the press in New York Credit: Reuters

US and Chinese officials spent days deciding his fate.

The face saving compromise which allowed him to apply like any other Chinese citizen for a passport and visa to study abroad was actually a sign that Washington and Beijing can work together under intense pressure.

Chen had been hidden in the US Embassy in the Chinese capital after his remarkable escape from house arrest. Hillary Clinton had been in Beijing at the same time for scheduled talks. The private discussions over Chen were tense and drawn out, but a deal was done in days. Just after he arrived in New York Chen praised the "calm and restraint" of the Chinese government.

It was Chinese central government which allowed him to go - did it have any other option? Not really, not with the world watching and waiting to see if China would keep its promises.

Was this a victory for the US? No, not entirely. At first the Embassy staff allowed Chen to leave the safety of the compound, and escorted him to a hospital where his broken foot, an injury suffered during his escape, could be treated.

That first night we spoke to him. He was alone, frightened and had been told that there had been a threat to send his wife back to the house that had been their prison. He feared thugs would "kill her".

The Embassy looked like they had released a persecuted activist right back into the hands of his former 'jailers'. US officials were then denied access to see him in hospital. It all looked as thought a dramatic deal had unravelled. Mitt Romney seized the chance to call it a "dark day for freedom".

Chen spoke to us on the phone as he was waiting for the plane to the suitably named Liberty airport in Newark, New York. He wanted to reassure the relatives was leaving behind. His brother and mother in law both claim they are now under house arrest and have been beaten; as some kind of revenge for Chen's escape. His nephew faces an attempted murder charge after allegedly stabbing an official who stormed his house shortly after the escape.

"Acts of retribution have not ended" Chen told reporters in New York, so while praising the "calm and restraint" of the central government he's clearly still concerned about what the local authorities in his home province will do now.

It's the local government which objected to his campaigns against forced abortions and sterilisations. They're now embarrassed that a blind man managed to slip away unseen from a house which they'd surrounded with guards and cameras.

Clearly his relatives don't feel safe but Chen told us: They must be hoping the same and although Chen is now in the US, there are many watching to see what happens to those he leaves behind.

They should be confident this will all end well.

They must be hoping the same and although Chen is now in the US, there are many watching to see what happens to those he leaves behind.

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