Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng called on the United States Thursday to pressure Beijing to improve its human rights record as he urged his fellow citizens not to depend on foreign assistance in their push for change.
In an exclusive television interview with VOA Mandarin, the 41-year-old legal activist said the U.S., as the global human rights leader, commands substantial leverage over China because "its economy is not really as powerful as it is made out to be."
"Many of their statistics are inflated and the vast majority of China's citizens have not benefited from the country's economic successes, which are limited to a handful of cities," Chen said.
Earlier, he had called on the Chinese people to end one-party communist rule and for Washington not to "give an inch" on human rights in its relations with Beijing.
But analyst Michael Mazza of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute said U.S. influence is "of course, limited by the nature of the [countries'] relationship and business interests."
"There are things we can do to step up pressure to help alleviate - in minor ways - some of the human rights abuses that happen in China, and do so without putting the larger relationship at risk. Basically, it is public statements, public pressure in support of dissidents in China," said Mazza.
Chen told VOA that dictatorship is one of the greatest threats to human civilization but that the time is ripe in China for change.
"In this key moment of transformation, international pressure is extremely important. But Chinese [youth] back home must understand that although others can help us, we cannot wait for outsiders to be the main actors in this effort," Chen said.
He has encouraged China’s people to learn from Burma, which recently ended decades of military rule as well as media censorship.
Chen was in Washington this week to receive the 2012 Lantos Human Rights Prize, named for the late U.S. congressman Tom Lantos, who was a Holocaust survivor and prominent rights advocate.
The self-taught Chinese lawyer had endured four years of prison, followed by an illegal and abusive detention separated from his family after he led a campaign for the rights of the disabled and against forced abortions in China.
He has been studying law at New York University since he dramatically fled house arrest and sought refuge at U.S. Embassy in Beijing last April.
In a video message posted on the Lantos Foundation website, Chen thanked the world community for its "great concern for China's freedom, human rights, the rule of law and social justice."
"In the wake of the Arab Spring," he said, while countries like Burma and Cuba liberalize, "China's human-rights situation is actually getting worse."
Chen called on Beijing to keep its promise to investigate those responsible for persecuting him and his family in his rural community in eastern China for the past several years.
He said the Chinese government has sentenced his nephew, Chen Kegui, to three years in prison as a punishment for his escape.
"Not only has there been no investigation, but those officials - including the local police chief - who persecuted my family members were promoted. These robbers who stormed my brother's house with clubs, beat my sister-in-law and nephew and sent him to jail, continue their surveillance and harassment," he said.
"That's the nature of dictatorship," Chen said. "There's no monitoring system, no watchdogs."
Washington has urged China to stop further retribution against Chen's family members. Beijing has said it would abide by the Chinese legal system.
Getting local officials to follow the law, even after a newly-announced policy or reform, can be a vexing issue in China, made worse by the country's rampant corruption. But Chen is hopeful, even in the face of state-sponsored repression.
"Changes to the Chinese legal system are inevitable. While the country has good laws that protect citizens from robbery and other crimes, party officials are able to habitually invade your property, beat and interrogate you without reprisal," Chen said.
But even under communist rule, he added, information is increasingly able to filter down through the Internet.
"In the past, we could only get party-controlled media in China. [But] now, people have access to a much wider range of information and can express themselves through [new media]. This has led to more awareness and more protests. [Such actions] will only increase in the future," Chen said.