Insight from the Blind: A Chinese Activist Speaks His Mind from New York City Exile

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Mario Tama / Getty Images

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations on May 31, 2012, in New York City

A long, sustained applause greeted blind Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng when he approached the dais at the tony New York City headquarters of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Assembled before him, awaiting his first public address since arriving in the U.S. two weeks ago, were the cognoscenti of the world’s preeminent liberal democracy — American media heads, policy hacks, academics, rights advocates, business elites. For the next hour, Chen, sporting his customary dark sunglasses, a black suit and red tie, spoke of his journey from obscurity and abuse in Shandong province to minor celebrity in Greenwich Village.

Chen’s interlocutor was Jerome Cohen, the New York University law professor and China expert who played a key role in brokering the deal that allowed Chen to leave China for a study fellowship at NYU. The two have been friends for almost a decade, and Cohen likely gave Chen counsel when the latter penned an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday, decrying the lawlessness and impunity with which China’s local provincial officials act out of view from central authorities in Beijing. Chen, it must be stressed, styles himself as the loyal petitioner, a man who simply wants China’s leadership to enforce the laws it already has. But in a political system as closed and sensitive as China’s one-party authoritarian state, even that sort of advocacy has proved dangerous — as Chen knows well.

(MORE: Chen Guangcheng Is in New York City, but His Family Still Faces Abuse in China)

In his remarks before CFR’s members and a gallery of American media, Chen decried the “illegal” intimidation and violence meted out on his family members by local authorities in Shandong — what he deemed “frenzied retaliation” — and said China’s central government had promised to investigate his claims. He repeatedly invoked stipulations and articles in China’s constitution, insisting that he only seeks “truth from facts” — a phrase in Chinese that has become a well-known Maoist axiom. Quoting Confucian aphorisms governing personal conduct, Chen seemed the consummate lawful Chinese citizen. Even when asked about his sensational escape from house arrest in Shandong to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, Chen stressed that he didn’t want “asylum,” but rather had a right to “sanctuary,” as per Chinese law.

But, no matter how law abiding Chen may present himself, he couldn’t avoid the fact that he has been compelled to quit his country. Seven years ago, local authorities placed him under house arrest for investigating and challenging forced abortions and sterilizations in Shandong province. Though his cause was well known — he’s a member of the TIME 100 class of 2006 — he seemed destined to be yet another activist silenced by a government that brooks no dissent. But the events of this year, which provoked a diplomatic crisis for the U.S. and a serious loss of face for Beijing, made Chen an international cause célèbre. “In the last seven years, I haven’t had a weekend,” said Chen, adding that he was in the U.S. mainly to “replenish” himself and “my knowledge.”

When asked by an audience member if he was afraid Chinese authorities would not let him return after his study abroad ended, Chen shook his head. “Let’s not make assumptions,” he chided. “We shouldn’t be in the habit of always challenging what [China’s central government] is doing.” He expressed similar confidence about the prospect of reform, saying he was “very optimistic” about genuine democracy emerging in China within his lifetime, pointing to its success in formerly authoritarian countries elsewhere in East Asia. Democracy isn’t a cultural phenomenon that can take root in one part of the world but not the other, he argued. “We shouldn’t look for the difference between what is us and what is them,” said Chen, adding later: “You cannot repress the basic goodness that is in human nature. I think that basic goodness will come out.”

Yet that sentiment flies in the face of the narrative of the ruling communists, who for years have justified their political system — steeped in its “Chinese characteristics” — as something fundamentally distinct from politics elsewhere. The more Chen answered various questions from CFR’s members, the more apparent it became why he must trouble China’s rulers.

A question regarding the grisly spate of self-immolations conducted by Tibetan activists led Chen to muse over the etymology of one of the words for traitor in Chinese, which, he said, means somebody who goes against the Han, China’s majority ethnic group. The logic behind a Tibetan’s sense of marginalization, Chen seemed to say, is encoded in China’s very language. Chen’s response to a question regarding Bo Xilai, the high-profile communist official whose dramatic fall from grace played out alongside the Chen incident, would have raised even more eyebrows in Beijing. He gestured to reports of corrupt officials in Shandong using their power to grow their wealth and even kill their enemies. “Bo Xilai is not an isolated case,” said Chen — no matter how China’s leaders may insist or pretend it is.

(MORE: Chen Guangcheng’s Greenwich Village Residence)

But Chen is sober and practical about reform. “Many people, they want to move the mountain in one week, but that is not realistic,” he said. “We have to move it bit by bit.” For the time being, that means Chen, who never received a proper legal education in China, will dive into his studies in the U.S. He says he’s keen to learn the nuances and distinctions between Anglo-American common law and that which is practiced on the European continent. While in New York, he wants to somehow get involved and learn from current efforts to overhaul legislation governing the rights of the disabled. That’s what first got Chen, who is blind, interested in the law in 1991. The Chinese law for the disabled, he said, “was printed on paper and then put into a drawer and never properly enforced.”

During the hour-long discussion, Chen appeared composed and eager, launching into responses almost before a question (and its translation) had finished being posed. When Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, asked Chen about the current state of government crackdowns on corrupt provincial officialdom, Chen’s disquisition on society and its discontents was gently cut short by Cohen. Chen smiled ruefully: “There is too much I have to say.”