By Peggy Eastman
The paradox of fear and hope that is China today includes flouting the rule of law, corruption, gross violations of individual rights, wrongful imprisonment, harassment of those who criticize the Communist Party, and real optimism that change is coming with new leadership, according to Chinese lawyer and human rights advocate Chen Guangcheng.
Chen drew a standing ovation when he gave a keynote talk, “In Search of China’s Soul,” through an interpreter at a Washington National Cathedral Jan. 30. “This is a moment we will always remember,” said Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Fallows, who moderated the evening program.
Chen became a high-profile human rights figure on the world stage when he spoke out against forced abortions and sterilizations in China in 2005, even filing a class-action lawsuit against authorities in Shandong protesting China’s one-child policy. Placed under house arrest and jailed for more than four years, Chen escaped to Beijing in April 2012, where he and his family came under the protection of the U.S. embassy. Today he is at New York University School of Law working on a memoir scheduled for publication late this year.
During the last four years in China, 100 desperate citizens set fire to themselves, Chen said. “In China, the law is optional,” he said, describing how respected lawyers are kidnapped and tortured. He described how his family was threatened and how he witnessed “gross violations” of the rights of women and children. “The survival of the Communist Party has always taken precedence over rule of law,” Chen said. Before he left China, he said, authorities promised to investigate his case for abuses of law; that has yet to happen.
In China today, religious worship by Christians and Muslims is greatly restricted, he said, which adds to the harms the authorities inflict on the soul of his country. Nonetheless, Chen said he is hopeful about the future of China’s soul.
“Despite the dire situation in China, I’m actually optimistic that change will come,” he said, because Chinese lawyers, environmentalists, academics, journalists and citizens are speaking out about the abuses they see.
“Change in China will become unstoppable,” Chen said. “We must fight for our rights. … Our fate is in our own hands.”
Nothing is more terrifying to the Chinese government than the fact that “the Chinese people are losing their fear,” Chen said. When people lose their fear, he said, violence and threats lose their power and no longer work.
“I’m confident that China is moving toward a constitutional government and rule of law,” Chen said. “I just hope it doesn’t take too long for this transformation.”
Chen advised leaders of the United States and other countries: “Don’t do anything based on whether China’s leaders will be pleased or not.” He urged foreign journalists and others to continue speaking out against human-rights violations in China. “It is the knowledge that people outside have not forgotten us that keeps us going,” he said.
Speakers on a panel moderated by Fallows agreed that change will inevitably come to heal China’s soul. Festering under the current repressive regime is an educated middle class with ready access to the Internet and social media, said Jerome Cohen, professor at NYU’s law school and co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute.
“The leadership sees that it has created a Frankenstein,” Cohen said. Indeed, China’s leadership should now see an opportunity to go along with change, said Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.
“People know that something’s got to change,” said Dorinda Elliott, global affairs editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Newsweek’s former Beijing bureau chief,
The discussion was presented through the 2013 Nancy and Paul Ignatius Program, which explores issues at the intersection of faith and public life. Chen’s address is available in video on the cathedral’s website.