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Interview: Chinese Activist Says Reform Will Have To Come From The People

Chinese dissident and civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng
Chinese dissident and civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng
Blind civil-rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who gained international recognition for taking on China's one-child policy and other causes, set off a diplomatic firestorm last year when he escaped house arrest in China and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Following diplomatic intervention by Washington, he was allowed to travel to the United States to study law in New York, where he currently lives with his family.

RFE/RL correspondent Courtney Brooks sat down with Chen to discuss his views on current events in China, as well as his and his family's experiences since leaving Beijing.

RFE/RL: How has your transition to the United States been?

Chen Guangcheng: As far as cultural conflict is concerned, I haven't felt much of anything significant. Of course, there are things to acclimatize to, but I can get used to most of it. But the real difficulty has been in dealing with the ongoing effects of my treatment in China. For example, to this day, my bones have not healed in my foot, and psychologically there are things I can't even mention. It will take a really long time to thoroughly heal from that experience.

RFE/RL: Can you describe what it is like to be a civil rights activist in China?

Chen: The life of an activist is still pretty brutal because the Communist Party can use any measure at any time to either illegally lock you up at home or put you in jail or break up your family, and it can happen at any time.

There are people such as Hu Jia [a dissident and activist in China who was imprisoned from 2008 to 2011 - Eds.] who gets locked up any time there's a sensitive day or anniversary. Of course, there's a lot of support among the Chinese people, but it's still not quite enough support to overcome government persecution. But I think that, in the future, the public reaction will be increasingly immediate and powerful.

RFE/RL: There has just been a wholesale leadership change in China. Some people suggest there is more openness to reform than in the last government. What is your assessment of the new leadership?

Chen: If they actually do this, of course it's good. But it's important that we don't just listen to whatever they say. We have to watch what they do. It's been a while, and we've not seen any real actions, just a lot of talking. It's been all talk, too much talking. Just a lot of things people want to hear. But we've never seen follow-through on these things.

So, I think that if the government wants to make their actions align with their words, they need to change policies that we can see, that we can touch. First of all, they should not restrict expression. They should not censor the Internet. And they should not restrict freedom of speech. They should immediately begin open investigations into the cases that have gone uninvestigated for so long.

Many of my friends who are working in human rights have been illegally detained at home because of [Secretary of State John] Kerry's visit to China over the last few days, and these people need to be let free. They have said they will change that, but it has not changed.

RFE/RL: In terms of the ruling Communist Party, do you see any possibility for reform within the party, or do you think there will need to be a revolution in order for real change to occur?

Chen: I have not seen that the Chinese Communist Party has any true desire to reform. They've talked about this in every leadership change -- from 1997, then in 2002, 2007, and again now. It's just talk.

But now the Chinese people are waking up. Their awareness is developing very quickly and, because of this, China will not be able to remain unchanged.

This transformation will possibly come from the maturation of the Chinese people and their continual opposition, and perhaps the Chinese Communist Party will make some changes when they have no other option. But as for change resulting from the Party's own initiative, I have no hope for that."

RFE/RL: Some observers suggest that there is a growing sense of nationalism in China. Do you agree with this sentiment?

Chen: First of all, the sense of nationalism in China is indeed quite strong, but I don't think it's getting stronger. I think it, in fact, is getting somewhat weaker because an increasing number of citizens are becoming more aware and aren't just believing the party line.

What we are seeing now, I am sure, is the result of the support of the government. For example, during the recent demonstrations against Japan there were a lot of open protests on the street, and I'm sure that there was a lot of government backing for that. Because, really, the only protests that reach the streets in the open are those that the Communist Party wants to see. Other, more democratic, protests would not be allowed to take place.

RFE/RL: You have called for the documents pertaining to your admission to the United States to be made public. What do you think could be gained by this?

Chen: I, of course, hope to find a solution that is based on the truth. This document was an agreement between the American and Chinese governments, and the people have a right to know. Especially the American people have a right to know, and I also have a right to know.

If an agreement has been made, and it's not being followed, we should all have the right to oversee these matters and to be a part of the resolution of these matters. If they're not willing to openly share this document, does that possibly suggest that there's something that they don't want people to know about? I don't believe this is appropriate."