Last night I had the opportunity to attend the awards ceremony for the 2013 Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize at Santa Clara University. The recipient was the Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, a blind and (formerly) barefoot peasant from rural China turned international human rights advocate.
Chen escaped China with his wife and two children in 2012, after he fled house arrest (thanks to some very incompetent guards – remember Chen is blind and fled alone!) and appeared at the US embassy in Beijing. After causing quite an international incident, Chen has now settled down into life in New York City, where he studies law at New York University.
I want to share a few of the things Chen said as well as a few of my impressions.
First, Chen was extremely blunt in his criticism of China’s leaders. He said that he was reluctant to call them a “government” because they ignore the rule of law. He referred to them as the Chinese Communist Party, not a government.
When questioned about the likelihood of future dissent he said this: “In the past the government was pulling up small plants. But now they are becoming trees.” Chen continued by saying that he actually found the possibility of a future revolution “likely,” which I found quite surprising, and which his translator did not initially translate – the moderator added that he said that.
Chen also commented, when asked what factors shaped who he is as a person, that his response has been very much a “natural reaction,” like shying away when you are being beaten. But in this case, of course, he did not shy away, he turned towards the beating and became hugely important because of it.
Chen voiced his appreciation of US law and the role of lawyers in human rights work to improve America over its history. It made me proud of my country that we could give refuge to such a courageous seeker of justice. It was also bittersweet to remember that the United States does have a very checkered human rights history, but that through the rule of law we have done much to overcome some of the worst abuses of the past.
Interestingly, while Chen’s story took center stage, what was not spoken of in much detail were some of the grotesque injustices that Chen had actually been fighting against. Continue reading