Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng with his wife Yuan Weijing. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng clarified Thursday that despite escaping house arrest last month and his alleged abuse by local authorities, he wants to return to China after studying law in the United States.
Chen made news when he sought sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on the eve of a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top U.S. officials. At first he said he didn’t want asylum from the United States, but later while receiving treatment at a Chinese hospital, he told reporters he did want U.S. help.
He explained this apparent change of heart on Thursday by saying it wasn’t a change at all. “While I was in the embassy, I said I didn’t want to leave China because what I meant was I didn’t want asylum,” he said through a translator at a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York City.
He added that it was a “total coincidence” that he arrived at the embassy in time for the high-level U.S.-Chinese meetings. “I didn’t know there was a strategic dialogue taking place, because I was cut off from everything. I was isolated from the rest of the world” while under house arrest, he said.
Once the Chinese government guaranteed his safety and rights, including being able to travel in and out of the country, he said he decided to take advantage of a fellowship the New York University offered him, but he denied there was anything more behind it. “If I had waited six months and said I want to go abroad to study, you would have thought nothing of it. But because it happened so quickly, people think something happened. But I do want to go back to China and then come out again to study.”
Chen said he remains concerned with the state of law in China, and although the country of 1.3 billion people has many laws protecting the rights of individuals, it is not enforcing them. (He writes more in a New York Times opinion piece.)
He also expressed concern that his nephew, who he said was beaten by hired thugs and fought back with a knife, was being held without access to a lawyer in his hometown of Shandong. “The local authorities there have been retaliating against my family in a frenzied way,” he said.
The central government has promised to investigate the alleged beatings, and Chen said he hopes it follows through.
During his time in New York, Chen said he hopes to learn about how China’s laws compare to those in the United States. Chen, who is blind, said he particularly is interested in laws protecting the rights of the disabled.
Minxin Pei, director of international and strategic studies at Claremont McKenna College, said while Chen has become a symbol of persistence and engagement, as he highlights the problems with China’s legal system, he can’t afford to burn his bridges with China because he wants to return there after his studies.
“The next few months will be very crucial,” said Pei. Chen “will have to show that he’s politically independent, he knows what he’s doing, that he will fight for his cause in a way that will not burn bridges with the Chinese government, and not to get caught in the fray of Chinese politics and U.S. politics.”
Already, he has been welcomed by abortion opponents in the United States because he speaks out against forced abortions in China.
On Thursday, Chen pointed to the government allowing him to leave as evidence it is opening up. “As long as they’re beginning to move in the right direction, we should affirm it. We shouldn’t be in the habit of challenging what they’re doing. We should deal very factually (with it) and not make assumptions.”
He said major improvements in China are dependent on the backing of the Chinese people and will take time. “If they don’t care about their own society operates, then how can that society function? … Many people, especially if it’s a big problem, they want to move the mountain in one week. That’s not realistic. We have to move it bit by bit and by many people. We can’t expect it to happen overnight,” he said.
Ray Suarez and New York University’s Jerome Cohen discuss Chen’s New York University fellowship and how his case could impact U.S.-China relations:
Sophie Adelman contributed to the reporting.