Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng left China for the US on Saturday with his passport, thus ending a diplomatic headache for China and the US.
Chen's escape from house arrest in northeastern China last month and subsequent stay in the U.S. embassy caused huge embarrassment for China and led to a diplomatic rift while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Beijing for talks to improve ties between the world's two biggest economies.
The U.S. State Department said he was en route to the United States, along with his wife and two children. He boarded a United Airlines flight bound for Newark.
State news agency Xinhua said Chen had applied to study in the United States under legal procedures, in the first official account of Chen's activities, but made no mention of whether he had left the country. The 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 human rights.
Chen's friend, Jiang Tianyong, cited the activist, one of China's most prominent dissidents, as saying that he and his family obtained their passports at the airport hours before he was due to board a 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."
There was no immediate indication where Chen might pursue his studies, but New York University's law school has previously offered him a position as a "visiting scholar".
By allowing Chen to leave, the Chinese have effectively silenced him. He would have been far more dangerous to them speaking out in China where he risked arrest and imprisonment, and where his words would have received international attention rather than anything he might say in the US, which is likely to go unnoticed.
There is no indication from the government whether Chen will be allowed to return to China.