In a question-and-answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, a modest Chen said that he hoped to help improve the rule of law in China by studying U.S. and international law during his stay at New York University, but he also sounded a realistic note about the enormousness of that task.
“Many people want to move the mountain in one week,” he said. “That’s not realistic. We have to move it bit by bit. . . . You can’t expect it to happen overnight.”
Chen has been the subject of international attention since fleeing de facto house arrest in late April and taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Since arriving in the United States
after a nearly month-long negotiation over his fate, the self-taught lawyer has given few interviews while settling into New York with his wife and children.
But on Thursday, Chen demonstrated once again what makes him an unusual threat to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. He is not asking for the ouster of the party or even the end of one-party rule. Rather, he is asking that the party abide by its own laws and international agreements on fair trials as well as on protection against arbitrary detention and torture. Given his stature, even those pleas threaten to expose a large amount of corruption and abuses of power.
‘Thugs’ with ax handles
“The state of law in China . . . is still very much being trampled on,” he said, describing how about 30 “thugs” carrying ax handles broke down the door of his elder brother’s home and assaulted the brother and Chen’s nephew in overnight in Shandong province after Chen left.
He appealed for better treatment of his nephew, now in detention and barred from seeing his attorney after being accused of taking a knife and injuring three of the attackers.
“Really my nephew had no choice but to take a kitchen knife and fight back,” Chen said. “The moral standards are at rock bottom here.”
He said that while he was in a Beijing hospital, representatives of the central government said they would investigate and punish local authorities if appropriate. “I still hope the central government will live up to its promise and investigate this,” he said.
More broadly, Chen said that the Chinese government was trying to “put a lid” on problems and pretend that they don’t exist. “The more you put the lid on, the bigger the problems will get,” he said. “Over the last six or seven years, the legal situation has deteriorated.”
He quote the ancient Chinese scholar Confucius as saying “if you do not act fairly, how can you expect others to behave properly.” He said that the people in China in charge of law and order were “horrible role models.”
Citing the government’s much-stated concern about the need for stability in China after years of upheaval, Chen said, “We have to resolve these [situations], then society will be stable.”During his appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chen was interviewed in Chinese by Jerome A. Cohen, a law professor at New York University and a longtime lawyer at Paul Weiss Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.He then took questions from council members.
His appearance differed from that of Fang Lizhi, the dissident astrophysicist who took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing during the crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989 and then moved to the United States. After arriving in the United States, Fang also appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations but failed to impress the audience there, according to people present at the time.
Chen was cautious answering questions about Tibet, the Tiananmen crackdown and other sensitive issues, saying he had much to learn and catch up on after being cut off from most communication during years of detention in Shandong.
Regarding a recent book written about Tiananmen by the former mayor of Beijing, Chen said that “the central government needs to handle Tiananmen like my case. Get the facts out and stop trying to put a lid on it.”
Asked about the Chinese government’s frequent assertions that it cannot copy Western democracies, Chen said, “It is true we cannot just copy Western democracies. . . . But we also need to learn Eastern democracies like Japan or Korea. What’s wrong with having our own democracy? Chinese democracy.”
In China, Chen had been kept under de facto house arrest even though he had not been accused of any crime. After taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, he moved to a hospital, saying he would remain in the country. But he then opted to travel to the United States to study law, and he said he plans to return to China, unlike the many Chinese dissidents who have come to the United States over the years in search of political asylum.
After his presence in the U.S. Embassy became known, the Chinese government issued a statement warning the United States against interfering in China’s internal affairs. But Chen compared the situation to a family where a husband or wife started physically abusing the other. In such a situation, outsiders were entitled to step in.
Asked Thursday whether he expects to see democracy in China during his lifetime, the 40-year-old Chen said: “I’m very optimistic. . . . It would be giving too much time to say ‘in my lifetime.’ ” He said that the Information Age made it difficult to keep things out of the public eye.
“I think China will be changing very quickly, but it requires that everybody be involved. ”