Chinese Dissident Chen Guangcheng on Freedom, Surveillance and Speaking Out

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Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng in Taipei on June 24, 2013

Chen Guangcheng made world headlines in 2012 when he escaped house arrest and took refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing, before traveling to the U.S. with his family to take up a position as a visiting scholar at the New York University’s School of Law. One year on and the blind civil rights activist — famed for campaigning against forced abortions made under China’s one-child policy — is back in the news, having accused NYU of asking him to leave under “unrelenting pressure” from Beijing. (The university strongly denies this: law professor and China legal expert Jerome Cohen told the Washington Post, “No political refugee, even Albert Einstein, has received better treatment by an American academic institution.”)

Now Chen looks set to court Beijing’s wrath once more with an 18-day visit to Taiwan, organized by the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights, which said that the trip was being made to promote “freedom and human rights.” TIME spoke to Chen shortly after his arrival in Taipei on Sunday.

How much appetite do you have for continuing the struggle for human rights in China?
Of course this is high risk. This is very obvious. Everyone can see that. However, I think that all things are possible with hard work. Today’s China is very different from how it was before. My family and I have suffered at the hands of the government. But you can see that I am still standing, right? If we are doing something right, we must continue along this path.

How would you describe the human-rights situation in China today?
I think the biggest problem still lies with its rulers. They still want to control everything. They need to have everything in their hands. If there is no freedom of speech or freedom of dissemination of information, you cannot have free elections. However, the people keep fighting for their right to freedom of speech, while letting people overseas know what’s really happening inside China. This isn’t like before, when people couldn’t get information from abroad or [couldn’t get information] out of China. Now we need to break through this Internet firewall.

Do you think that Xi Jinping’s new administration has improved things?
Not at all. Xi is still operating in much the same way that Hu Jintao was. We should not expect someone who [violates] human rights to give human rights. We have to fight for it ourselves. The rights of the people in China depend upon people in China fighting for them.

Western universities are setting up expansion schools in China, and you have accused NYU of caving in to Chinese pressure because it has opened its own campus in Shanghai. What do you have to say to these institutions?
No matter what, you should never give up your principles. You should persist in them. The schools should not be doing this, as it is against the very basic principles that they are supposed to teach.

Local media report that a “pro-China group” will try to disrupt your trip by tailing you and holding protests. How do you feel about being watched?
Of course I’ll never really get used to it. Every time I call my friends, we know [Chinese agents] are listening. And they know that we know they are listening. But sometimes I just want to say what I want to say, and I want the [Beijing] government to hear it. Everybody knows that. But I don’t think anyone likes to have their privacy invaded. So sometimes, we won’t use the phone, we’ll use some other kind of communications device.

What are your thoughts on Edward Snowden? Do you feel that any country has the right to spy on its citizens?
No matter which government it is, it is wrong to spy on your citizens. China listens in to mobile phones and breaks into e-mail accounts. The one-party state does this to monopolize power. The U.S. is different, as they have a Congress to supervise the government. [But] I think the U.S. Congress should have even more powers to supervise what the government is doing. There’s also media. Media should view this problem more seriously. The public should also be more involved, instead of thinking that this is none of their business.

Can Taiwan’s road map to democracy be used as a model for China to follow?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with China using Taiwan as a model for democratization. However, Taiwan’s democracy still has a lot of room for improvement. The independence of media in Taiwan needs improvement. Of course, it’s much better than in China, yes, but when you compare Taiwanese media independence with the U.S. and the Western world, you come up with big differences.

How do you cope with the way the authorities continue to harass your family in China?
First, I have no regrets. Second, why does the government do this? Because they are afraid. This proves that my work was the right thing to do. They’re afraid because I’ve hit their weak spot. They’ve dealt with me for a long time, and they should know that targeting my family is a dirty trick. But it won’t work. If I give way to these tactics, it will only encourage them. If I don’t give way, then maybe they will lose interest. Every time they use these tactics to silence people, some do shut up, yes. But more of them refuse to be quiet. They take a stand and speak out. Even if this is a little slow in China, more people are standing up.