NEW YORK -- Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, who recently arrived in the United States, today called for government and party officials in China to honor the country’s constitution and laws.
Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, his first formal speaking engagement since arriving on U.S. soil, the blind lawyer said the problem in China is not the absence of laws, but lack of respect for laws already in place.
Speaking through an interpreter, he said rule of law begins with its observance by senior Communist Party officials, including President Hu Jintao.
“You are supposed to be in charge of law and order -- the party secretary -- and if you are not going to observe the law, how do you expect people to observe the law?" he said.
Chen, who is expected to study international law at New York University, said its rules and principles should apply to China if its leaders exhibit inappropriate behavior toward citizens. As an example, he described a vicious physical attack on his brother and nephew in his native Shandong province after he had fled their home. Although central authorities promised to investigate the incident, he said, they never did.
Responding to a question about possible democratic models for China, Chen said that while it is true China cannot simply copy Western democracy, it can look to other models of democratic rule.
“We also need to learn Eastern democracy," he said. "Japan, South Korea and China, what is wrong with having our own democracy? Taiwan has democracy, too. I still remember, there is an ancient Chinese phrase, ‘We learn from what is good, and what is bad we try to avoid.' "
The self-taught lawyer spent four years in a Chinese prison and had been under house arrest for two years before fleeing to the U.S. embassy in Beijing in April. In 2007, Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience who had been incarcerated for angering Chinese officials by opposing the country's strict population control laws, and for helping people fight government abuses.
After weeks of negotiations last month, Beijing allowed Chen to come to the United States to study at the New York University Law School. His wife and children were allowed to come with him, but his mother and other relatives remain under tight security in China.
In his Council on Foreign Relations appearance, Chen said he has not had a free weekend in seven years and needs some rest. But having been isolated from the world, he explained that he must replenish his knowledge of current developments.
"I want to know, what are the differences between English and American law versus continental law, so I can have some comparisons," he said. "And also, what role does law play in a society? Why is it that while everybody has laws, in some societies law does function, [while in other] societies, [people] act as if [they] can do without it.”
China, he predicted, will change very quickly because of information technologies, which have developed to the point that "if public officials do not want others to know about their misdeeds, they better not do them."