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. His nephew, Chen Kegui, is accused of attempted murder after he allegedly used a kitchen knife to attack officials who stormed his house after discovering Chen Guangcheng was missing.
"I hope that the government will fulfill 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 before the phone call was cut off.
Chen's expected attendance at New York University comes from his association with Jerome Cohen, a law professor at the university who advised Chen while he was in the U.S. Embassy. The two met when the activist went to the United States on a State Department program in 2003, and Cohen has been staunch advocate for him ever since.
"I'm very happy at the news that he's on his way and I look forward to welcoming him and his family tonight and to working with him on his course of study," Cohen said.
Much as Chen has said he wants return to China, it remains uncertain whether the Chinese government would bar him, as they have done with many exiled activists.
"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," said Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The harder, longer term part is ensuring his right under international law to return to China when he sees fit."
Wu'er Kaixi, an exiled dissident who is on China's list of most wanted student leaders for the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, made a third unsuccessful attempt Saturday to turn himself in at a Chinese Embassy, this time in Washington, D.C.
However, Chen's friends and supporters cheered Chen's departure. Teng Biao, who had urged Chen after he left the U.S. Embassy to leave China for his personal safety, welcomed the family's departure.
"I feel happy that he and his family can have a normal, free life in the United States with their safety ensured," Teng said.
Nanjing activist blogger He Peirong, who picked Chen up outside his rural village after his escape and spirited him to Beijing, said, "I hope that this will be a good beginning."
Associated Press videojournalist Annie Ho and reporter Charles Hutzler contributed to this report.
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