Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng was presented with the James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service on Thursday afternoon. Typically given annually, it is the highest distinction awarded by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.
Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer who has worked extensively to expose his country’s human rights violations, became the center of a diplomatic crisis between the United States and China after he escaped from house arrest and took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for six days in April 2012. Soon after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conducted talks with the Chinese leadership, Chinese officials agreed to let Chen travel to the United States in May to study at an American university, but it is not clear whether he will be allowed to return.
Before his escape, Chen had been placed under house arrest after serving a prison sentence for organizing a class-action lawsuit against Chinese provincial authorities for an inappropriate enforcement of the one-child policy, and he was allegedly beaten by his guards.
“We’re so happy to honor someone who we admire as students and who has changed our world in more ways than anyone can count,” Whig-Clio president Matthew Saunders ’15 said. He explained how he and other Whig-Clio officers had worked to bring Chen to campus to receive the award.
Chen, who is in the process of writing a memoir, spoke through interpreter Jing Wang, who provided consecutive translation of his acceptance speech and responses to questions.
Chen emphasized that the Chinese people had been “awakened about human rights” and explained how those who are especially involved in activism suffer repression. He referenced a saying that “you just do the good thing, and don’t ask about your future.”
As an example, Chen said that Christian Bale had tried to visit him in 2011 in a show of support, but their meeting was violently prevented by the Chinese Communist Party. As a consequence, the government also stopped promoting Bale’s movie in China, but Internet users organized groups to go see the movie and some people even went to the movie every day, he noted.
“The kind Chinese common people, after learning what was happening … bravely stood out and supported him,” Chen said.
Chen explained how, in the past, the Chinese government was able to prevent the interference of other nations in its internal affairs, “but now the Chinese public will ask the government themselves: They will say, ‘It’s not domestic matters; it’s domestic viciousness.’”
“Of course the U.S. government can do something!” Chen said in response to a question about what the United States can do for human rights. “Every individual, every organization, every government in this world has responsibility.”
He said that Americans should stay informed about the state of human rights in China through the Internet.
“Activities to fight for human rights depend a lot on the development of Internet and the interactions on the Internet,” Chen said.
When asked whether his separation from China would hinder his activism, Chen said that modern technology means that distance is not a problem.
Chen drew a comparison between the capacity of individual organizations and government to make moral choices. “As long as you do the right thing, you will win respect,” he said.
Chen warned that if the human rights situation in China does not change, China will not be able to grow as a country. He said that this must change because the government must ultimately respond to the demands of the people, even if one administration is unwilling to hand over authority.
“Put simply, my confidence in humanity and people’s goodness allowed me to escape,” Chen said of the motivation he drew upon to escape from house arrest.
“If after reading my book you get angry, just be angry, because we need to fight against injustice,” he added.