Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng told an audience in New York on Thursday that he thinks his country is moving toward becoming a more democratic society, but he said it will only reach its potential when his fellow citizens stop tolerating lawlessness among their leaders.
Chen was imprisoned for seven years by provincial officials until a dramatic escape from house arrest in his rural village last month. His talk at the Manhattan headquarters of the Council on Foreign Relations, an international affairs think tank, was his first extended public appearance since arriving in the U.S. on May 19, following delicate negotiations between the U.S. and China that secured his freedom.
The 40-year-old, blind activist said that his lengthy detention demonstrates that lawlessness is still the norm in China. The country's constitution and legal statutes may promise strong protections, he said, but in practice, powerful officials still routinely ignore the law when it suits them.
He noted that even after the central Chinese government promised to investigate the circumstances of his captivity and let him leave the country to study at New York University, a mob of "thugs" working for local officials severely beat relatives who stayed behind, and jailed his nephew for attempting to defend himself.
"Is there any justice? Is there any rationale in any of this?" he said through a translator.
Chen, though, also sounded a note of optimism. He said the era of cover-ups of illegal behavior, or uneven enforcement of the law, by government officials is fast coming to an end. Modern-day communications systems, he said, simply make it impossible for anyone to keep a secret.
"It's gotten to the point in China where, if you don't want something known, you'd better not do it," he said.
To move things along, he advocated for a combination of vigilance, pressure by the Chinese public to do something about corruption and a little patience.
"As long as they are beginning to move in the right direction, we should affirm it," he said.
He noted that "everything is in a state of historic transition" in China right now.
"Many people, they 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 and his wife were detained without charges in 2005 after he raised the ire of local officials by documenting complaints about forced abortions. He was later tried on a charge of obstructing traffic and damaging public property, sent to prison, and then put under extrajudicial house arrest again after his release.
He escaped his guards on April 22, breaking his foot in the effort, and then sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Chen said he was unaware at the time that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was just about to arrive in China for high-level diplomatic discussions.
"That was a total coincidence," he said.
Asked what he plans to do in the U.S., Chen said that after being held so long in isolation, he needs to get caught up again on world affairs. He also plans to study English and law, though he said he feels he deserves a short break first.
"For the last seven years, I haven't had a weekend," he said. "I need a rest."