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Mr. Chen‘s expected attendance at New York University comes from his association with Jerome Cohen, a law professor there who advised Mr. Chen while he was in the U.S. Embassy. The two met when Mr. Chen came to the United States on a State Department program in 2003, and Mr. Cohen has been staunch advocate for him since.

Before leaving China, Mr. Chen asked his supporters and others in the activist community for their understanding of his desire to leave the front lines of the rights struggle in China.

“I am requesting a leave of absence, and I hope that they will understand,” he said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland praised the quiet negotiations that freed him.

“We also express our appreciation for the manner in which we were able to resolve this matter and to support Mr. Chen’s desire to study in the U.S. and pursue his goals,” Ms. Nuland said in a statement.

The White House also said it was pleased with the outcome of negotiations.

China’s Foreign Ministry said it had no comment. The government’s news agency, Xinhua, issued a brief report saying that Mr. Chen “has applied for study in the United States via normal channels in line with the law.”

Mr. Chen‘s supporters welcomed his departure.

“This is great progress,” U.S.-based rights activist Bob Fu said. “It’s a victory for freedom fighters.”

The 40-year-old Mr. Chen is emblematic of a new breed of activists that the Communist Party finds threatening. Often from rural and working-class families, these “rights defenders,” as they are called, are unlike the students and intellectuals from the elite academies and major cities of previous democracy movements and thus could potentially appeal to ordinary Chinese.

Mr. Chen gained recognition for crusading for the disabled and for farmers’ rights and fighting against forced abortions in his rural community. That activism angered local officials, who seemed to wage a personal vendetta against him, convicting him in 2006 on what his supporters say were fabricated charges and then holding him for the past 20 months in illegal house arrest.

Even with the backstage negotiations, Mr. Chen‘s departure came hastily. He spent the previous 2½ weeks in a hospital for the foot he broke escaping house arrest. Only on Wednesday did Chinese authorities help him complete the paperwork for his passport.

Mr. Chen said by telephone Saturday that he was informed at the hospital just before noon to pack his bags to leave. Officials did not give him and his family passports or inform them of their flight details until after they got to the airport.

Seeming ambivalent, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.

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