Chen Guangcheng: we must not wait for a “virtuous ruler”

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Blind Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, made headlines around the world when he escaped house arrest and fled to New York with the help of U.S. officials. One year later, the media spotlight may have moved on, but Chen is still actively committed to the fight for human rights. 

Speaking to RNW during his recent visit to Europe, Chen said he believes the political situation in China is bound to change eventually. He was in Europe to meet with European Parliamentarians and heads of government. Discussion about human rights issues and religious freedom in China culminated in the launch of the transatlantic Defending Freedoms Project at the European Parliament in Brussels. During a session entitled Inevitable Change for China Chen made a speech urging the European Parliament to press Beijing to improve human rights and strengthen the rule of law. 

Talking gibberish
Talking about the visit, Chen said it was time for serious concern about the situation in China. “Many human rights talks in the past decade turned out to be gibberish. We all knew these talks could lead nowhere, but they went on nevertheless. This is precisely what the dictators want. The influence of Western democracies on China has been weakened. Human rights concerns have given way to trade and commercial interests. We’re already witnessing the consequences of this weakening.”

Chen hopes his project might help bring about change,. Defending Freedoms links members of the US Congress and MEP’s with Amnesty International and Christian human rights group ChinaAid. The project aims to challenge Beijing’s emphasis on economic diplomacy and trade-based international relationships.  

Fine words, broken promises
In March, the Chinese communist party formed a new Politburo and Xi Jingping was elected as the new party chief. Xi promised to bring about changes in the government and society but Chen is not optimistic He warns that people should not be fooled by fine words, as past experience has shown  that the regime rarely lives up to its promises. 

“It’s important to watch what they actually do. So far, the authorities still have the power to detain citizens illegally without going through the judicial system. A new bill has been passed allowing the police to infringe on a citizen’s personal freedom. It is futile to expect the new leadership to bring changes.” 

Fight for freedom
Chen also refuted the Confucian notion of a “virtuous ruler” with its emphasis on the  importance of a ruler’s personal integrity rather than just laws to govern a country. “People should not invest hope in a virtuous ruler to give them a better future. They must fight for that future themselves. We don’t know yet whether large scale bloodshed can be avoided in the struggle, but we hope to minimise the sacrifice.”

As for internet censorship, Chen recently called on Beijing to “tear down the internet Berlin Wall”. He is positive that official attempts to censor information will ultimately fail. Censorship can only delay the circulation of information. With the advancement of technology, negative information about the government will eventually reach the people.  

Longing for justice
Chen is currently studying law at New York University. He told RNW that he expects to publish his memoirs next March and he is also setting up a foundation to promote social justice and the free circulation of news and information. 

With Chen settled in the U.S., his relatives in China are being harassed and prosecuted by the authorities. His nephew, Chen Kegui, was jailed for assaulting a local official in a conflict at the end of last year. His brother was beaten and restricted from communicating with the outside world. Although generally admired as an activist in the West, the Chinese authorities portray Chen as a pawn of “foreign anti-Chinese forces” aiming to sabotage the state.

Despite all this, Chen dreams of returning to China one day. “Chinese people long for the rule of law, justice, conscience and humanity”, he says, “but the dictatorship refuses them what they desire. Those who are brave enough to tell the truth and call for justice must pay a heavy price for their bravery. This is the fundamental difference between Chinese and Western society. But it will not last forever.”