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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States on Saturday and declared "equality and justice have no boundaries" after China let him leave a Beijing hospital to quell a sensitive diplomatic rift between the two countries.
Chen escaped from house arrest in northeastern China last month and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, embarrassing China and creating an uncomfortable backdrop for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to improve ties between the world's two biggest economies.
"I am very gratified to see that the Chinese government has been dealing with the situation with restraint and calm and I hope to see that they continue to open discourse and earn the respect and trust of the people," Chen, speaking through a translator, told reporters outside a New York University housing building in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.
Chen, one of China's most prominent dissidents, is going to study as a fellow at the NYU School of Law. Leaning on a crutch because of an injury suffered during his escape, he smiled and waved to a cheering crowd before speaking to reporters.
"I'm very grateful for the assistance of the American Embassy and also (for) receiving a promise from the Chinese government for protection of my rights as a citizen over the long term," he said. "I believe that the promise from the central government is sincere and they are not lying to me."
"I believe that no matter how difficult the environment nothing is impossible as long as you put your heart to it ... I hope everybody works with me to promote justice and fairness in China," he said. "Equality and justice have no boundaries."
Chen, 40, who taught himself law, was a leading advocate of the rights defence movement in China. He gained prominence by campaigning for farmers and disabled citizens and exposing forced abortions.
He expressed concern on Saturday that "acts of retribution may not have abated" in his hometown of Shandong. The village of Dongshigu, where Chen's mother and other relatives remain, is still under lockdown.
"We hope to see in the future a thorough investigation into these events," Chen said.
Chen's nephew was denied his family's choice of lawyers on Friday to defend a charge of "intentional homicide", the latest in a series of moves to deny him legal representation, and underscores the hardline stance taken against the dissident's family.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration had feared a dispute over Chen's fate could sour already strained ties with China and generate criticism of Obama at home. Beijing has accused Washington of meddling in its affairs in the case.
Chen's abrupt departure from Beijing came nearly three weeks after he arrived at the Chaoyang Hospital from the U.S. Embassy, where he had taken refuge after an escape from 19 months of house arrest in his home village.
A United Airlines plane carrying Chen, his wife and two children, landed at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey shortly after 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) on Saturday and Chen was the first person taken off the plane. Some passengers said they had been prevented from taking photos during the flight.
Chen was accompanied on the flight by two Chinese-speaking officials from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and was met at the airport by State Department officials and Jerome Cohen, co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University, a State Department official said.
A White House official, Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council, praised the diplomacy that led to Chen's release.
"We welcome this development and the fact that he will be able to pursue a course of study here in the United States upon his arrival," he said during the Group of Eight summit the United States is hosting at Camp David, Maryland.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said this month that Chen could apply to study abroad, a move seen as a way of easing Sino-U.S. tensions on rights.
Chen's friend, Jiang Tianyong, cited the activist as saying that he and his family obtained their passports at the airport in Beijing hours before he boarded the flight.
"I'm obviously very happy," Jiang said. "When he boards the plane, he can finally say: 'I'm free.' At the same time, I feel a sense of regret because such a large country like China can't even tolerate a citizen like him to exist here."
Chen was jailed for a little more than four years starting in 2006 on what he and his supporters say were trumped-up charges designed to end his rights advocacy.
Chen had accused Shandong province officials in 2005 of forcing women to have late-term abortions and sterilizations to comply with China's strict family planning policies. Authorities moved against him with charges of whipping up a crowd that disrupted traffic and damaged property.
Formally released in 2010, Chen remained under house arrest in his home village, which officials turned into a fortress of walls, security cameras and guards in plainclothes guards.
Chen's confinement, his escape and the furore that ensued have made him part of China's dissident folklore: a blind prisoner outfoxing Communist Party controls in an echo of the man who stood down an army tank near Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The Chen case comes at a tricky time for China, which is engaged in a leadership change. The carefully choreographed transition already has been knocked out of step by the downfall of ambitious senior Communist Party official Bo Xilai in a scandal linked to the apparent murder of a British businessman.
On a number of occasions in recent years, authorities have relented to diplomatic pressure and allowed high-profile dissidents to leave China, knowing that its most vocal critics are effectively neutralized once they leave and are without support of friends.
At times, Beijing has appeared to use these deals as bargaining chips in broader diplomatic negotiations or to blunt criticism of its human rights record.
Human rights are a big factor in relations between China and the United States, even though Washington needs China's help on issues such as Iran, North Korea, Sudan and the global economy.
Chen's supporters, however, welcomed his departure, saying he had indicated that he would like to return to China.
Womens rights activist Reggie Littlejohn told reporters in New York that Chen's arrival was "a great day for freedom" because he could be more effective from the United States.
"In China they silenced him. Now that he's on U.S. soil he can speak truth to power," she said.
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Chris Buckley and Michael Martina in BEIJING, Arshad Mohammed in WASHINGTON, and Michelle Nichols in NEW YORK; Writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Bill Trott and Doina Chiacu