From New York City, Chen Guangcheng Calls Attention to Rights Abuses in China

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Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident and legal advocate who recently sought refuge in the U.S., gives an interview in New York City on May 24, 2012

When blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng flew from Beijing to the U.S. earlier this month, some analysts in the Western and Chinese press predicted that his influence would wane once he left China. It’s difficult to imagine how his clout could be any less than when he was in prison or under house arrest with his family in their village in Shandong province. It is true that after long periods outside their homeland, the voice of Chinese dissidents does weaken. But that process can take years. Chen, his wife and their two children have just arrived in New York City, and for now his stature is only rising.

The Washington Post suggested in a piece today that Chen, who is best known for fighting forced abortion and sterilization in Shandong, could become involved in the debate over abortion in the U.S. Thus far, though, he has stuck to issues immediately connected to his experience in China. Last week, in his first in-depth TV interview, Chen said he had spent the past 19 months under “illegal detention,” not house arrest. “It’s hard for me to describe what it was like during that time,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “But let’s just say that my suffering was beyond imagination.” On Wednesday the New York Times published an op-ed by Chen that detailed his complaints against officials in Shandong and his broader argument that they are not subject to China’s laws:

The fundamental question the Chinese government must face is lawlessness. China does not lack laws, but the rule of law. As a result, those who handled my case were able to openly flout the nation’s laws in many ways for many years.

(MORE: Brother of Chen Guangcheng Escapes Village Ringed by Security)

Chen wrote that he hopes to see an investigation into the officials who abused him and his family over the past seven years. He told TIME earlier this month that an official from the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, an administrative body that hears citizen complaints, had gone to visit his Beijing hospital room several times to document the abuses he suffered. But there is still little indication that the government plans to punish anyone involved. This week the Communist Party appointed a new standing committee for Shandong, the province’s highest ruling body. Li Qun, who as head of the city of Linyi launched the draconian enforcement of China’s one-child policy that Chen rallied against in 2005, remains on the standing committee, indicating that he is untouched for now. Chen also wrote about the case of his nephew Chen Kegui, who has been arrested and charged with attempted murder for using kitchen knives to slash at local officials who raided his house after Chen Guangcheng’s escape was discovered. The 32-year-old has yet to meet with a lawyer and may have been tortured in custody, Chen Guangcheng wrote. Last week Chen Guangfu, Chen Kegui’s father and the eldest brother of Chen Guangcheng, slipped out of their tightly guarded village and traveled to Beijing to meet with a lawyer for his son.

On Thursday, Chen Guangcheng will speak at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City with Jerome Cohen, the New York University law professor who is his longtime friend and who arranged for his fellowship at the school. The event will likely be packed with reporters hoping to hear more details of his story. As a free man in New York, Chen has the ear of the world’s most powerful media outlets. The focus on his case is not likely to diminish soon, but neither is the abuse of his family members who stayed behind.

MORE: A Blind Activist Is in the Limelight, but Most Victims of Chinese Repression Are Anonymous