Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng accepted a top human rights award Wednesday with a call to the Chinese people to become the linchpin of political reform, saying they must “free the nation from bondage” under one-party rule.
Chen, who made a dramatic escape from house arrest last year and is one of China's most prominent activists, said that political change in the world’s most populous country will ultimately come from its citizens themselves, expressing confidence that China's people will step up to the plate.
“China will see a transformation,” he predicted at a ceremony awarding him the 2012 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize at Capitol Hill in Washington attended by U.S. lawmakers.
“More and more people are overcoming their fear to take action,” he said, adding that the wave of supporters who had come to visit him while he was under house arrest in northeastern China’s Shandong province was a prime example.
He urged the people to push the ruling Chinese Communist Party for human rights and political reforms and to be the "main actors" in those efforts.
“We need to bring to an end this period of history during which the Communist authority maintains a monopoly on power and enslaves the people through a leadership of thieves, and establish a truly civil society,” Chen said.
He also called on the U.S. government to press China on human rights with “no compromise.”
Chen, a self-taught lawyer who exposed forced abortions under the country's one-child policy and defended the rights of ordinary people, has been living and studying law in New York since arriving in the U.S. in May after a diplomatic standoff between Washington and Beijing.
After 18 months of house arrest in Shandong's Dongshigu village, Chen outwitted his guards and made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where Chinese and American officials eventually struck a deal allowing him and his family to go to New York to study.
Lantos Foundation President Katrina Lantos Swett said the story of Chen’s “near-miraculous escape” had captured the world’s imagination and made him a “dashing superhero” of the global human rights movement.
American actor Richard Gere presented Chen with the foundation’s award, calling him a “kind and gentle troublemaker.”
Past recipients of the award include Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and Romanian-born Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.
Nephew 'paying the price'
But Chen said the freedom that allowed him to be in the U.S. to receive the award had come at a high cost.
“Today, I and my immediate family are free in body; but in mind we cannot be free, because so many of my compatriots—including many family members—are still living under the evils of the authoritarian system,” he said.
His nephew, now imprisoned in the same jail where Chen spent several years, is “paying the price” for his escape, he said.
Chen Kegui is serving a three-year sentence for his role defending himself from authorities in a raid on his home in the immediate aftermath of his uncle’s dash from Shandong.
Chen Guangcheng said local authorities in Shandong continue to pressure his friends and supporters, as well as other activists and petitioners.
“Recently many friends and neighbors that I’ve been in touch with by phone have been taken in to custody by the authorities for questioning. They have been threatened and made to describe what our conversations are about.”
A group of petitioners from his hometown who traveled to Beijing were kidnapped and beaten by thugs working for the Shandong provincial authorities, he said, and a foreign reporter who visited the village was questioned by authorities and told that Chen was an American spy.
One student from southern China’s Hainan province who went to visit Chen’s mother in Shandong received a phone call saying police had arrived at her parents’ house and were warning her not to go.
Outside of Shandong, Chinese authorities continue to detain dissidents and “human rights warriors” such as fellow rights advocate Gao Zhisheng and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo as well as his wife Liu Xia, who is living under house arrest, he said.
Petitioners suffer persecution by the authorities and have little recourse to justice, he said.
“These are not isolated cases of injustice, but represent a reality in China today,” he said.
“Legal protection and justice do not exist or are only very rarely available for most citizens.”
He called for the international community to support the Chinese people in moving towards a society that respects human rights, urging the U.S. to establish a long-term plan for human rights and “not give in an inch.”
“There should be no compromise, even if there are large business interests at stake,” he said.
He said China could follow the example of Burma, which is carrying out democratic reforms after decades of military junta rule.
“What the people of Burma can do, we can do too,” Chen said.
“Anything is possible.”
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.