NEW: Chinese addresses future at event Thursday in New York
NEW: Chen spoke repeatedly of what he calls China's growing disregard for the rule of law
NEW: Chen pointed to nephew's ongoing ordeal as example of that lawlessness
The 40-year-old self-taught lawyer sought U.S. help after fleeing from house arrest in April
With years of house arrest and weeks at the center of a diplomatic uproar behind him, human rights activist Chen Guangcheng spoke in New York Thursday about how he plans to use his new freedom.
For the last seven years, “I’ve been isolated from the rest of the world,” Chen said in a talk titled “What’s Next for Chen Guangcheng” hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan. “I need to replenish my knowledge.”
Now a special student at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, Chen said he plans to focus his legal studies on the role of law in society, differences between U.S. law and Chinese law, and laws designed to protect the disabled.
He also said he plans to study English and, between his various pursuits, take some overdue downtime.
“The last seven years I haven’t had a weekend. Both from my body and my mental health, I need some rest.”
In the hour-long discussion, Chen spoke repeatedly of what he deems to be Chinese government officials’ growing disregard for the rule of law – especially on the local level.
The law in China is being “trampled on,” he said, echoing a theme he addressed a day earlier in a New York Times op-ed titled “How China Flouts Its Laws.”
He discussed his nephew’s ongoing ordeal as a chief example of that lawlessness.
Chen Kegui, 32, was charged with attempted murder after “the deputy secretary in charge of law and order got 30-odd hired thugs with ax handles and busted their way” into his home. Kegui had “no choice” but to defend himself from the men with a kitchen knife, Chen said.
“In the middle of the night totally against China’s constitution they broke into a home? … There’s no justice in this.”
Kegui remains in detention and his family has been unable to get information about his condition, leading them to suspect he may be undergoing torture, Chen said.
Chen emphasized at various points that he believes local authorities, which he called “very backward,” ignore the rule of law more frequently and more flagrantly than the central government.
Of his own detention and beatings at the hands of officials in Shandong Province, Chen said he thinks the central government was somewhat aware of what his captors were doing to him, but not fully. That disconnect between local governments and the central government is common, he said.
“I’m … sure they don’t know completely what’s going on. … What they hear is probably, to some large degree, very biased in nature.”
Chen also took the Chinese government to task for what he contends is its tendency toward suppression and censorship, summarizing its philosophy as: “If I put a lid on all these problems, they don’t exist.”
“The result is that the more you put a lid on, the bigger the problems get.”
But Chen’s criticism of the Chinese government were notably mixed with praise. He commended it for permitting him to study in the U.S. And he expressed hope that the central government would follow through on his call to investigate Shandong Province officials’ treatment of him and his family.
Asked whether he thought there would be genuine democracy in China in his lifetime, Chen said he was “very optimistic” – an assessment he based on Chinese citizens’ increasing access to information.
“Chinese society has gotten to the point where, if you don’t want something known, you better not do it.”
Though confident that China is in a state of “historic transition,” Chen argued that fundamental change in the country will require ordinary citizens’ participation, not just government reforms. And he cautioned that any change will occur in fits and starts.
“Many people…want to move the mountain in one week. We have to move it bit by bit and start by ourselves.”
While his talk was primarily forward-looking, Chen also briefly recalled his recent stay at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
Chen disputed U.S. officials’ statements that he said he did not want to go to the United States when he was at the embassy – only to change his mind as soon as he was released to Chinese authorities.
“While I was at the embassy I said I didn’t want to leave China. What I meant was I didn’t want asylum.”
Chen has hesitated to reveal details about what happened during his four years of imprisonment from 2006 for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.”
And in an interview with CNN five days after arriving the U.S., he was reluctant to describe the periodic beatings he says he and his wife endured during 18 months of detention in their village of Dongshigu in Shandong Province.
“I don’t want to talk about it right now,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Let’s just say that my suffering was beyond imagination.”
In addition to his own case, Chen fielded questions on other major controversies roiling China at Thursday’s talk.
On the self-immolations in Tibet, Chen said, “I think the problem is (the central government is) not looking at the Tibetans as a fraternal ethnic group. Everybody should be treated equally, and I think that would solve the problem.”
In the midst of applause at the talk’s conclusion, Chen bolted upright and announced that he had one final thing to say.
“As I see it, there’s nothing that’s impossible. There’s no such thing as a difficulty that cannot be overcome.”
CNN’s Hilary Whiteman contributed to this report.