Chen Guangcheng: Basic Human Goodness Will Overcome Corruption, Suppression

In his first U.S. presentation, the dissident makes no mention of his work combating abuses of one-child policy, but outlines basic view of restoring rule of law in China.

SPEAKING HIS MIND. Chen Guancheng arrives with his wife, Yuan Weijing before speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations May 31. This was Chen's first major public engagement since he escaped confinement and left China nearly two weeks ago.
SPEAKING HIS MIND. Chen Guancheng arrives with his wife, Yuan Weijing before speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations May 31. This was Chen's first major public engagement since he escaped confinement and left China nearly two weeks ago. (photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Chen Guangcheng this morning gave his first presentation in the United States since his dramatic departure from China this month.

Chen, who ran into trouble with local authorities in his native Shandong Province after documenting abuses stemming from China’s one-child-per-couple restriction, answered questions from an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

But nothing was mentioned during the hour-long meeting, either in the introduction or the long question-and-answer session, of his concern about forced abortions and sterilizations that are done in enforcement of China’s family-planning policies.

Rather, the focus of the meeting was on the lack of a rule of law in China and what can be done to bring about reforms in the country.

Chen has personal experience to back up his assertion that authorities often put themselves above the law in China.

“Our central government has stated more than once that I’m a free person, and it was very normal for me to leave Shandong,” he said of his recent experience, in which he left his small village, sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and was finally granted permission to go abroad.

But after he did, local authorities sent about 30 “thugs” to his home, beat his relatives and took away their communications devices, he said. A nephew, sensing that his life was being threatened, took up a knife to defend himself, he said, and ended up being charged with a crime for that action.

“Any person of conscience would say this is wrong,” he told the gathering, pointing out that the illegal actions of the “thugs” were overlooked.


Can’t Suppress Goodness

Now officially a student at New York University, Chen said he would like to use his sojourn in America to bring himself up to date on legal and other issues in China and the world, as he has spent so much time under house arrest and “illegally” isolated from the outside world. He said in answer to a question that he’d be interested in studying international law, because laws such as those against torture reflect “universal values accepted by most people around the world. These are basic norms of behavior.”

Asked whether he feels American corporations doing business in China have a role to play in how workers are treated, Chen suggested that the question be better posed to corporations, but remarked, “Once you’ve solved your basic livelihood, the next thing you need is going to be a spiritual life.”

He noted that most people in China are “very good people” and that a “rational society, a law-abiding society, would allow people to show their innate goodness.” At the present time in China, he said, “If you try to show your goodness, you may be in danger.”

But, he added, in answer to another question, “You cannot suppress the basic goodness that is in human nature. I think that goodness will come out to the fore more and more.”

He expressed optimism about a move toward democracy in China — not necessarily Western-style democracy, but perhaps something modeled along the lines of Taiwan’s system. This will happen, he said, because the information age has developed so quickly. “If you don’t want something known, you’d better not do it,” he said. “People are using all kinds of means to disseminate information now. Can you really do cover-ups? No, that possibility is diminishing. So, for officials to ride on top of the constitution, that possibility is less and less likely to be accepted by the people.”


Optimism and Patience

At least one observer who has followed Chen's work took note of the absence of any discussion of the one-child-per-family policy.

"Chen's focus on the one-child policy is an embarrassment for both the Chinese Communist Party and the Obama administration," said Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute. Mosher himself has documented many of the abuses of the policy. "Clearly, someone at CFR steered Chen into speaking on issues that would not embarrass at least the latter. Many at CFR have close ties to the present administration, and, in any event share its views that the world in general, and China in particular, is overpopulated."

Jerome Cohen, the NYU law professor, CFR expert and friend of Chen's who hosted the gathering this morning, has not yet responded to a Register request for comment.

But Chen's optimism may also apply to the local authorities who enforce the one-child policy. Until recently, forced abortions and sterilizations have been carried out secretly, according to speakers at a conference in New York earlier this week.

Replying to a question about a recent crackdown on legal efforts to prosecute corrupt government officials, Chen said, “The more you try to put a lid on these problems, the bigger they get. Over the past six or seven years, the law situation in China has deteriorated, to the point that, last year, the deputy party secretary in charge of law and order, [was heard] to say, ‘I don’t care what law is; we can use illegal measures. I do as I please.’”

But change in China requires patience, he said. “In China, everything is in a state of historic transition, and at this time, international concern is very important,” he said. “Many people want to move the mountain in one week, but we have to move it bit by bit and start with ourselves. If everybody would do that, then maybe the effect would be very good.”

Chen himself needs that virtue of patience as well. The Chinese government, he said, “promised to me they would thoroughly investigate Shandong authorities” who have abused his family members. “I’m waiting.”

John Burger is the Register’s news editor.