In Chen Guangcheng's first press conference since his dramatic arrival in the United States, the blind Chinese human rights activist walked a thin line: He expressed broad optimism about his homeland's future and blatant realism about conditions for millions living in China's troubled present.
From a packed room at the Council for Foreign Relations in Midtown Manhattan on Thursday morning, Chen talked about his troubles. The self-educated attorney arrived in the United States on May 19 after enduring a harrowing escape from brutal house arrest in his home province of Shandong. (See "Free indeed," May 21.)
Chen had endured years of imprisonment and arbitrary house detention for exposing thousands of forced abortions and sterilizations in Shandong. The activist-blind since childhood-eluded dozens of guards, scaled several walls, and walked many miles before hitching a pre-arranged ride to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on April 26.
After three weeks of tense negotiations, Chinese and U.S. officials reached an agreement: Chen and his immediate family could travel to America to study at New York University.
Now that Chen is safe, he is worried about his extended family in his home village in China. The activist told the Manhattan crowd that Chinese officials are exerting "intense pressure" on his brother, and that his nephew remains imprisoned without access to an attorney.
Those realities grieve Chen not just because they involve his own family, but also because they're illegal under Chinese law. For nearly an hour, he spoke about what he sees as the central problem in China: "China does not lack laws, but the rule of law."
Chen said his own activities in China-including defending the rights of disabled Chinese citizens-centered on asking courts to enforce Chinese law. He said corrupt local officials often ignore the law and abuse their citizens, including his own family: "The moral standards are rock bottom."
Even the forced abortions that Chen protested are against Chinese law. But those prohibitions haven't stopped the government from coercing thousands of citizens to undergo forced abortions and sterilizations in pursuit of the country's one-child policy.
Chen didn't speak about forced abortions during his press conference or in a New York Times editorial he penned for Wednesday's edition of the newspaper (see "How China flouts its laws"). But that work was central to his activism in China, and extensively documented by fellow attorneys (see "Blind justice," WORLD Magazine, June 2).
Despite his own ordeal, Chen expressed optimism about China's future. He said the dissemination of information via the internet and other media makes it harder for Chinese officials to hide things from its citizens, despite ongoing attempts to block internet access to controversial sites. (For example, simple internet searches for information on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 yield few facts about the actual massacre.)
Still, the number of citizens protesting government abuses continues to rise each year, even in the face of serious reprisals. "The government thinks if they put a lid on problems, they don't exist," said Chen. "But the more you put a lid on problems, the bigger they get."
Chen said he expected to see significant progress toward democracy in China during his lifetime, and that he planned to return to home country after completing his studies. He also said he hoped Chinese officials would keep their pledge to investigate the abuses he endured, and publicly punish anyone responsible: "They made a promise. … I'm waiting."
If those expectations seem like wishful thinking about an entrenched communist government, even Chen moderated his optimism in his Times editorial: "The government has often failed to fulfill similar commitments."
For now, Chen said he's eager to learn more about what's happened around the world over the last seven years. (The activist received very little information about the outside world while in captivity.) And he's eager to continue to recuperate from an ordeal that has been grueling for his entire family: "For the last seven years, I haven't had a weekend. … I need some rest."