Chinese dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng spoke Tuesday about the stagnant progress of human rights in the country where he was born, and from which he was forced to flee in 2012.
The event, held at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, marked the June 4 massacre of pro-democracy students by the Chinese military 25 years ago in Tiananmen Square.The Chinese government has never officially recognized the massacre and does its best to shove the event down the memory hole.
Chen, known as "the barefoot lawyer" because of his village upbringing, is self-taught in the law. Despite being totally blind since childhood, he rose to prominence as a critic of the communist government. Chen's success story is especially noteworthy because of the rigid class structure in his home country; opportunity is limited for those without party connections, a fact Chen notes bitterly.
As a result of his outspokenness, Chen invited the attention — then the brutality — of the Chinese government. He has been detained multiple times by Chinese authorities for his strong opposition to official policies ranging from state-approved history to state-approved reproduction under the reprehensible one-child policy. In 2012, the dissident escaped house arrest in dramatic fashion and, after a diplomatic tussle, gained asylum in the United States.
At the event Tuesday, Chen announced this was the first speech he had ever delivered in English "so no one will forget that terrible day [June 4]." His English was hesitant but lucid; he became more animated when answering questions through a translator in his native Chinese. Regardless, Chen's message was clear: 25 years after the massacre, the government's attitude toward human rights is little changed.
"Instead of admitting its evils, instead of facing its history, the [Chinese] Communist Party attempts to cover it up to maintain a one-party state," Chen said. Given the dozens of activists who have been jailed for spreading awareness of Tiananmen on the Chinese mainland, it is hard to argue against his point.
He advocated for a harder line against the Chinese political class, who he says will only respond if their "privileges" are jeopardized.
"Look beyond China's economic success and support the ordinary Chinese," Chen exhorted. "[Help] end Internet censorship. Stop receiving June 4 criminals as honored guests. Don't let those who crush human rights into your free, democratic countries. Deny them the warmth of your handshake.
"Dishonoring evildoers is not dishonorable," he added.
His words are a rebuke to U.S. politicians who have often called on China to liberalize but have done little to force the government's hand.
As the Washington Examiner reported, last week Chen attended a press conference on Capitol Hill to honor those killed in the massacre. Members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, attended.