Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng says he is "very optimistic" that he will see a democratic China in his lifetime, calling on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to enforce its own laws.
Using his own case as an example, Chen said China is "moving in the right direction," adding that he plans to go back to China after studying law in the U.S. as long as his "individual rights are protected."
"I wouldn't be here talking to you if they hadn't made the correct decision," Chen told a packed meeting hall at the Council for Foreign Relations in New York on Thursday.
"We should give the Chinese government due credit for allowing me to come and study here, and not assume they won't let me return," he added.
"I am very optimistic we will see Chinese democracy in my lifetime," said Chen, who opted to study law in New York after his dramatic escape earlier this month from house arrest in his native Shandong province sparked tense diplomatic negotiations between Beijing and Washington.
High-profile activists who have sought political asylum overseas say they are typically prevented from returning to China, even in the case of family emergencies, and have little way of continuing their activism directly from outside the country.
Chen was helped onto the stage by his wife Yuan Weijing, who was confined and beaten alongside her husband during the family's detention at their Shandong home.
He drew a distinction between the desire for reform at central government level and the "lawless" actions of local governments.
"China has laws, but they are not enforced ... police agencies are told to carry out illegal acts," he said.
He added that in his own family, local officials have continued to "retaliate" against his brother, Cheng Guangfu and nephew Chen Kegui, who he said was beaten severely with "ax handles."
Chen said China need not import Western-style democracy in order to implement political reforms, but should rather look to Asian democracies like those in South Korea or Taiwan.
"Democracy is not a strictly Western concept," he said, in what was his first public speaking engagement since arriving in the U.S. nearly two weeks ago.
But he added: "You can't move a mountain overnight; you have to take it step by step."
He said judicial reform should be based on Article 5 of China's Constitution, which enshrines basic respect for the rule of law, adding that China could "try harder" to implement political change, while the building of a civil society would depend on ordinary citizens.
"If you try harder, many things can be done," he said. "At least a lot more can be done than is being done right now."
Speaking just ahead of the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Chen called on the government to "take the lid off" official information about what happened and how many died on the night of June 3 and the days that followed weeks of student-led protests.
"Human rights is a very basic human value," he said. "If you can't even care about such fundamental human matters, other things are very superficial by comparison."
He blamed a decline in social morality in China on the lack of rule of law. "A rational society, a law-abiding society, would allow people to show naturally their innate goodness," he said.
"Right now, if you try to show your goodness you may be in danger."
Chen's daring escape from his tightly guarded home in Shandong's Dongshigu village, during which he broke his foot climbing over a wall, came just ahead of annual strategic dialogues between U.S. and Chinese officials.
But the activist said he had been totally cut off from the outside world during his incarceration, and had no idea that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would soon be arriving in Beijing. "[It was] a total coincidence," he said.
Chen said he "took refuge" in the U.S. Embassy, rather than fleeing, and explained his apparent change of heart by saying that he had moved from considering political asylum to wanting to study overseas.
Asked what he appreciated about his new life alongside his wife and two children in New York, Chen replied: "I haven't had a weekend in seven years."
New York-based Asia Society senior fellow Jamie Metzl hailed Chen as "a Chinese national hero."
"If China’s society and economy are going to reform as everybody—including China’s leaders—recognizes it needs to do, it will only happen if people like Chen Guangcheng and those he represents are empowered to have their voices heard," Metzl said in a statement after Chen's speech.
According to Chen's brother, Dongshigu village is still under tight security a month after he fled house arrest there, with local officials branding the activist a traitor.
Chen, who is now a special student in law at the US-Asia Law Institute of New York University, has repeatedly called on central authorities to investigate the treatment of his family under illegal detention, including the ongoing refusal to allow lawyers hired by the family to visit his nephew, Chen Kegui.
Lawyers hired by the family to represent Chen Kegui say they have been prevented from meeting their client. Chen was himself denied adequate legal representation at his own trial in the county several years earlier for "obstructing traffic."
Reported by Ho Shan for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.