WASHINGTON (AP) — Blind dissident Chen Guangcheng on Tuesday urged China's people to end the communist-governed nation's "leadership of thieves" and for Washington not to "give an inch" on human rights in its relations with Beijing.
Chen made the comments as he received an award from a human rights group in a ceremony attended by several U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill. His speech was a stinging rebuke to authorities in China where he had faced years of persecution for his legal activism against forced abortions and for citizens' rights.
The 41-year old self-taught lawyer, who was blinded by fever in infancy, caused a diplomatic crisis last April when he fled house arrest in rural China and sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. China subsequently allowed him to come to the U.S. to study law.
Chen said at a time of transformation in China, international pressure is extremely important but the main actors in bringing reform to the one-party state should be the Chinese themselves. "We need to bring to an end this period of history during which the Communist authority maintains a monopoly on power and enslaves the people through a leadership of thieves, and establish a truly civil society," Chen said, standing alongside his wife Yuan Weijing.
He encouraged Chinese people to emulate Myanmar, which is shifting from five decades of military rule. Chen cautioned the U.S. government against compromising on human rights in its relations with China because of economic and business interests.
"There should be no compromise, even if there are large business interests at stake — dignity, freedom and justice are more important," Chen said. He spoke in Mandarin language, and his comments were then repeated in English by Hollywood actor Richard Gere, who co-presented the award to Chen on behalf of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.
The foundation is named for late U.S. congressman Tom Lantos who was a prominent rights advocate. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond for comment on Chen's remarks. Gere, best known for speaking out for the cause of Tibetan struggling under Chinese rule, led the tributes to Chen, calling him a "kind and gentle troublemaker, a man that China should be proud of instead of arresting and torturing."
Democrat Rep. James McGovern said Chen had an "indestructible commitment to the rule of law and human rights." Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte said Chen had "bravely stood up in the face of oppression." She said China would only reach its full potential when it recognizes the unalienable rights of its people rather than viewed that as a threat to its political power.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Chen said that China's authoritarian system is doomed as its society changes and people increasingly challenge their rulers. He said he hoped someday to return to his homeland — although his uncompromising comments are only going to alienate him further from China's leadership. Among Chinese dissidents, perhaps only the jailed Chinese Nobel peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo, has a higher profile.
Chen made clear Tuesday that he identified with those who remain under detention in China for speaking out. He listed several, including Beijing lawyer Gao Zhisheng and Liu's wife, Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest for more than two years. He also referred to people who travel to Beijing to petition the government only to be beaten or held in so-called unofficial "black jails."
"These are not isolated cases of injustice, but represent a reality in China today," Chen said. He complained about treatment of relatives back in his home village, particularly his nephew Chen Kegui was sentenced in December to three years in prison, accused of attacking officials with a knife. Chen says it was a clear case of self-defense, as the officials had barged into the house at night and beat him.
When officials negotiated Chen's exit from China, the U.S. said it had urged China not to exact further retribution against Chen's family members, and Beijing had said it would abide by Chinese law. The Obama administration has spoken out on human rights issues, but has not allowed it to derail efforts to deepen ties with China, the world's second-largest economy and a rising military power.
The Communist Party has presided over an economic boom that has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty in China. Access to the Internet and social media — albeit censored — has also offered new avenues for people to express their views in China, but the party retains a political monopoly.