OSLO, Norway — Chen Guangcheng began his activist career fighting over specific issues like disability rights and the one-child policy with the Chinese government — the latter of which resulted in his house arrest and eventual escape from China. But the blind activist has cast his net wider now that he’s in America, becoming more of a symbol of the global human rights movement than ever and attacking the Chinese Communist Party on a broader scale.
Chen, accompanied by his wife Yuan Weijing and two translators, has been bombarded with well-wishers and reporters during his stay at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a human rights conference. Of all the dissidents and activists at an event full of them, Chen’s story is the most widely known and also one of the most exciting — the house arrest, the nighttime escape, the new life in America. And while his departure has ended his influence in China for the moment, Chen has become a model for global dissidents who want the level of support he’s received from abroad, plus the platform he’s created for himself.
“There is nothing to fear from a washed-up ruling power that has lost its moral, legal, and ethical foundations,” Chen told a rapt audience at the Christiania Theater in central Oslo on Tuesday.
Chen recited a litany of abuses his family has suffered at the hands of the Chinese authorities, most recently the beating of his brother by two “thugs” who pulled up beside him in a black car, beat him up, and then waited around and watched as the police came, Chen said.
Chen accused China of reverting to harsh Cultural Revolution-era tactics.
“The legal system has converted back to the Cultural Revolution era, when party officials were accountable to no one,” he said.
His rhetoric was at times lofty. “Anything is possible in this world,” he said. “China will undergo a transformation, and we must turn our attention from party officials to the people. People are the true actors in the life of a nation and society.”
In a wide-ranging interview with BuzzFeed, Chen said he hasn’t changed focus — it’s just that the outside world is finally paying attention to his full message.
“I don’t think much has changed for what I’m interested in,” Chen said through a translator. “It’s just that it was perhaps just a small fraction that was known to the outside world.”
“The protest I did against the one-child policy is the best-known case,” he said, “but I was always working on a lot of different subject matters like migrant workers, environmental issues, disabled rights. A wide array of issues.”
Chen said he is settling well into his life in New York, and he hopes to eventually be able to visit China.
“The party won’t be in power forever, and people will be able to travel,” he said. “Then it wouldn’t be an issue for me to travel back to China.”
Chen said he believed the recent attacks on his family in China were related to his outspokenness now that he’s free of the regime’s clutches in America.
“They’ve always been persecuting my family, it’s just even worse these days,” Chen said. “I think they’re in a state of madness. They’re really trying to stop me from being outspoken and disclosing the truth about China, but I can say for sure they’ll never get what they want.”
“This is not just one single event. They’re not just targeting my family,” Chen said, citing other activists who have been jailed or beaten.
“I’m in touch with a lot of them, and it’s a prevailing phenomenon in China,” Chen said. “Most of the activists, their families are being threatened, and a lot of them are already accustomed to this. Those of them are still getting adjusted to that, it bothers them.”
The Chinese government has promised to investigate Chen’s claims that his family has been recently targeted, but there’s no evidence so far that they’ve done so. The State Department has said it is concerned over the incidents, and Secretary of State John Kerry sent a written letter of protest to the Chinese foreign minister. But the United States seems unlikely to make a big deal out of it.
Chen called for the U.S. to tweak its policy toward China.
“What needs to be done is the decoupling of trade and human rights issues,” Chen said. “America now is trying to shy away from these issues by being very ambiguous on its stance. That needs to be changed and they need to be up front about this.”
He argued that the U.S. needs a “long-term approach” for dealing with other countries in light of human rights abuses.
And he’s suspicious of China’s recent moves on the international stage, including its attempt to insert itself in the Middle East peace process.
“China’s been doing this, but very subtly, since a long time ago,” he said. “That’s a technique China employs to gain a voice and spread its opinion.”