Dissident From China Expresses Optimism

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Author: Rick Gladstone
Date: June 1, 2012
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Article
Length: 681 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1530L

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Despite suffering from years of illegal detention, Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese activist whose daring escape began an odyssey that brought him to New York University on a fellowship, expressed optimism on Thursday about the future of legal rights in China.

In his first major public appearance since shortly after arriving in the United States nearly two weeks ago, Mr. Chen, 40, also praised Chinese leaders for allowing him to exercise his legal right to study abroad as a Chinese citizen -- and not, as in the cases of most other Chinese rights activists, forcing him into exile as a dissident. ''I think we can see that the central government is letting me come to the U.S. to study,'' Mr. Chen said at a forum sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. ''That is unprecedented, regardless of what they did in the past. As long as they're beginning to move in the right direction, we should affirm it.''

Mr. Chen was greeted with loud applause when, still hobbling from a foot broken during his nighttime escape from his family farmhouse in Shandong Province, he spoke to an overflow crowd sprinkled with lawyers and rights advocates. He was accompanied by Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor and China legal expert who has known Mr. Chen for many years.

Asked first by Mr. Cohen about Mr. Chen's own most pressing question, Mr. Chen replied through an interpreter, ''I think that what I'm most concerned about, also the most important question, is the state of law in China. It's still very much being trampled on.''

He recounted how, as he had written in a New York Times Op-Ed article published Wednesday, the local authorities in his village had hired people armed with ax handles to exact retribution on members of his family after his escape to Beijing, where he received refuge at the United States Embassy. After tense negotiations with the Chinese authorities, American diplomats reached a deal under which Mr. Chen, accompanied by his wife and two children, was allowed to leave for the United States.

Mr. Chen expressed particular concern about the fate of his nephew, who he said had been arrested on attempted murder charges for resisting nighttime intruders who turned out to be security police officers, and for his brother, who he said was ''under tremendous pressure'' for having helped him escape.

Mr. Chen said representatives of the central government had assured him that ''the kinds of cruel and inhuman behavior that my family was subjected to in Shandong will be investigated, that if it violates Chinese law they will seek truth from facts and publicly deal with this.''

A self-taught legal rights advocate for peasants, Mr. Chen became internationally known for his work in exposing abuses of China's official one-child family planning policy. He had tangled with the local authorities in Shandong Province in eastern China ever since he organized a class-action lawsuit against the city of Linyi in 2005 for excessive enforcement of the policy, including forced abortions.

After serving a prison term on charges widely considered fabricated, Mr. Chen was confined to his home, without formal charge, starting in September 2010.

Mr. Chen spoke of a tendency among the local authorities in China, far from the gaze of the central government in Beijing, to flout the law and due process guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution. But he expressed confidence that such abuses would diminish as China became more integrated into the world.

''I'm very optimistic,'' he said. ''I think even over the last few years as the information age has developed so quickly, China's society has gotten to the era where, if you don't want something known, you'd better not do it. So people are using all kinds of means to disseminate information.''

But he said the process of developing a more civil society would be slow. ''Many people -- especially if it's a big problem, they want to move the mountain in one week,'' he said. ''That's not realistic. We have to move it bit by bit and start with ourselves.''

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