By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng urged the United States on Tuesday not to let business concerns prevent it from pressing China over human rights, saying America must never "offer the smallest compromise" on its principles.
Chen is a self-taught legal advocate whose escape from house arrest last April and subsequent refuge in the U.S. Embassy embarrassed China and led to a diplomatic tussle that ended with him leaving China to study in New York.
He used a speech at a human rights award ceremony in Washington to call on the world to hold China to account for repression and to urge ordinary Chinese to look to the example of Myanmar as they struggle to win their rights.
"I sincerely hope that everyone - petitioners, human rights workers, civil rights groups, national governments and especially the United States government - will come together to encourage progress in human rights," said Chen.
"There should be no compromise, even if there are large business interests at stake - dignity, freedom and justice are more important," he said in translated remarks read in English by actor and Tibet advocate Richard Gere.
Chen received the 2012 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize, named after a California congressman who was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress. Lantos died in 2008.
The activist, now studying law at New York University, said he felt a "profound resonance in my heart" with Lantos from their shared experience escaping persecution and dictatorship.
"We must not only remember the atrocities of the fascists, but also recognize that today authoritarianism is firmly entrenched, and that the barbarism of the authoritarian system is the greatest threat to civilized societies," said Chen.
Chen endured 19 months of harsh house arrest in his home village in Shandong province before his escape, but said his family members and contacts continued to suffer. Chen's nephew Chen Kegui was jailed for 3 years after using knives to fend off local officials who burst into his home after Chen's escape.
"Recently, many friends and neighbors who I have been in touch with by phone have been taken into custody by the authorities for questioning. They have been threatened and made to describe what our conversations have been about," he said.
CHINESE PEOPLE "MAIN ACTORS"
The United States bore a special responsibility to uphold and promote its basic founding principles, despite economic weakness that has prompted some deference to fast-growing power China over human rights in recent years, he said.
While "it is clearly difficult to shift attention away from issues of finance and the economy, remember that placing undue value on material life will cause a deficit in spiritual life," said Chen.
"You must establish a long-term plan for human rights and not compromise on it, ever," he added.
China rejects outside criticism of its human rights record as unwarranted interference in its internal affairs.
Chen, whose dramatic escape last year won him a wide following on China's social media networks, said ordinary Chinese must be the "main actors" in achieving their rights.
"Democracy, freedom and justice don't just happen. We must strive for them through action," he said.
"Last year, Myanmar lifted the ban on political parties, and last Friday it abolished media censorship. What the people in Myanmar do, we can do, too," said Chen.
The New Hampshire-based Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice has given previous annual awards to the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, Holocaust survivor and activist Elie Wiesel, and Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan hotel manager who hid and protected more 1,200 refugees during Rwanda's genocide.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)