Despite years of imprisonment, harassment and physical abuse by the authorities, activist Chen Guangcheng says he is hopeful about China.
“I am actually optimistic that change will come,” said Chen, at an event Wednesday in Washington D.C.
Earlier this week, the blind activist, known by many in his country as the “barefoot lawyer, was presented with the Tom Lantos Human Rights award at a ceremony on Capitol Hill. It comes just nine months after he made a dramatic escape from house arrest at his home in Shandong province. After taking refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, he negotiated his way out of China to study in New York.
Chen has a somewhat paradoxical view of his home country - equal parts hopeful and dim.
Sizing up the new Chinese leaders who assumed power in November, he painted a bleak picture, describing the situation as “dire.”
“The survival of the Communist Party has always taken precedence over rule of law and basic freedoms in China,” he said. “And there is nothing to indicate that this situation will be any different under [President] Xi Jinping. To this day, the Chinese Communist Party has not given any sign that it will change or do the right thing.”
He ticked off the continued persecution against those who wish to practice their religious beliefs, against activists who speak out and ordinary Chinese by the authorities. He said the government uses what he called Mafia-like suppression to maintain stability.
Before he left China last May, Communist Party officials told Chen – and the world -- they would investigate his complaints of abusive and illegal treatment against him and his family by the authorities in Shandong.
Nine months later, nothing has been done.
“On the contrary,” said Chen. “The Shandong authorities sent my nephew to jail and also arrested my brother.” He says his nephew and his nephew’s mother were also beaten in retaliation.
But nothing is simple in modern-day China, where tensions between the state and the people have been stoked by a growing middle class, economic power, official corruption, increased use of the Internet and an unfamiliar willingness to challenge authority.
Chen pointed out improvements in the legal system, saying more laws and regulations are being drafted every year. He warned of a back slide, however, noting that officials routinely ignore the law.
“In China, the law is optional,” Chen said. “The law in China is nothing more than empty words. Scraps of paper.”
But this champion of rights for farmers, women and the handicapped is not a bitter man. Chen strongly believes that democratic reform is inevitable.
“China is a country of brave people. And as more and more people in China speak out, demand their rights and fight for public interest, change in China will become unstoppable,” said Chen, adding that he believes it will come from the people, not the leadership, because they are the same “lineup” – as he describes them -- as the party’s former leaders.
Not everyone agrees about the current Chinese leadership and its ability to change.
“We should not completely lose hope for Xi Jinping,” said Cheng li, director of research and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a director of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. “Now is still his honeymoon period…that he demonstrates some of the promises, some of the progress, like his trip to southern China emphasizing reform and openness. Now whether he will deliver, we do not know. It’s still early stages. I’m still hopeful.”
Other experts note that the notion of China’s people rising up against their leaders is not that far-fetched in a country of 1.3 billion people.
“The people of China are increasingly bubbling up,” said Professor Jerome Cohen of New York University and the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. “The Internet, social media, education… it all has an impact [and] they are increasingly aware of their rights. Also, there is a class we shouldn’t forget: the educated, the middle class, the officials, the academics, the business people. They are all now festering under this repressive regime… they are increasingly eager to improve,” Cohen said.