Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng said authorities in Shandong province continue to retaliate against his relatives, highlighting the lawlessness of official conduct at the local level.
“What I am most concerned about is the state of law in China, which is very much being trampled, and more specifically after I left my home in Shandong, the local officials there have been retaliating against my family in a very frenzied way,” Chen said in a talk yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Chen arrived in New York on May 19 after intense negotiations between the U.S. and China over his fate. He was interviewed yesterday by friend and supporter Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University who arranged for Chen to study law at the university and live with his wife and two children in Greenwich Village in Manhattan.
Chen said his brother, who returned to Shandong, is still under “intense pressure” from officials, as are the friends who helped him escape house arrest there. Chen’s nephew has been detained and denied access to a lawyer after what Chen described as an attack by thugs hired by local officials that left him bleeding three hours later.
Chen said that while he was in Beijing, representatives of the central government told him on several occasions that they would investigate the treatment of his family.
“I still hope the central government will be able to live up to this promise and investigate,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.
Chen praised the Chinese government as making the right decision in letting him come to the U.S., and deflected a question from an audience member about the possibility he may not be allowed to return to China.
“The central government is letting me come to the U.S. to study, that is unprecedented,” he said. “As long as they are beginning to move in the right direction, we should affirm that.”
He later said he is “very optimistic” that genuine democracy will come to China in his lifetime, and perhaps much sooner, as technology makes it more difficult for officials to hide misdeeds.
“As the information age has developed so quickly, Chinese society has gotten to the era where if you don’t want something known, you’d better not do it,” he said. “Can you really do cover-ups? No, that possibility is diminishing, so for officials to ride on top of the constitution, that possibility is less and less likely to be accepted by the people.”
Change of Plans
Chen, who is blind, was imprisoned for more than four years after representing villagers who opposed forced abortions and sterilizations, and was then held under house arrest without charges until he escaped in late April to Beijing, where he took refuge in the U.S. embassy.
Once Chen left the embassy, he rejected a deal he had initially accepted to stay in China, causing a diplomatic dilemma for the Obama administration and resulting in the arrangement for him to accept a fellowship in the U.S.
Asked about his revised plans by an audience member yesterday, Chen said he didn’t change his mind.
“After the central government guaranteed my personal safety, after I left the U.S. embassy, I enjoyed those rights that the government guaranteed, so one of those rights is the freedom to travel into and out of China,” he said. “Now, you feel I changed my mind, but I don’t feel I changed my mind. If I had waited six months and said I want to go abroad to study, you would have thought nothing of it.”
Chen said he is studying English and plans to learn about U.K. and American law to compare them with Chinese law, as well as about laws on the rights of disabled people. He defended the right of those outside China to intervene on human-rights issues, comparing it to trying to stop a case of mistreatment in a family.
“Let’s say either a husband or wife is abusing each other, then perhaps you’ve gone outside the bounds of what is a family norm,” he said. “Then outsiders do have a right to be involved. If you are behaving inappropriately toward your own citizens, your own people, I think international law should have some constraining ability.”
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