Blind Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng recieves the 2014 Geneva Summit Courage Award and addresses the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Hillel Neuer: As I said when we opened today’s summit, all of our speakers today are gold medalists in moral courage. And we just had the Olympics, but indeed today with us are world champions of courage and conviction.
One of them we’ve decided to award an actual award, the Geneva Summit Courage Award. And to make the introduction and the presentation, I have the honor and the privilege to call up the chair of UN Watch, Ambassador Alfred Moses. Thank you.
Alfred Moses: Thank you, Hillel. Yes, good afternoon. In April of 2012, a little less than two years ago, the eyes of the world were focused on Beijing. More precisely, on the American Embassy in Beijing, not on Tiananmen Square, not on the meetings of the Central Committee, not on the Government of the People’s Republic of China, not on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was visiting or Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner. They were in Beijing to talk about North Korea, trade, commerce. The eyes of the world were focused on a political refugee who had sought asylum in the American Embassy.
Chen Guangcheng, from Dongshigu, who at an early age lost his sight due to illness, taught himself to read by Braille, educated himself, received a law degree, and then became a spokesman for the oppressed in his province; women subjected to sterilization and forced abortion, local citizens of China deprived of their human rights.
For his great crime, which was described as destruction of public property and disturbing public order and peace, he was sentenced to four years in jail. When he was released from jail in 2010, he was placed under house arrest with a concrete wall surrounding his residence, a wall two meters high, in order to contain this threat to public property and public peace in China.
Courageously, in the spring of 2012, Chen Guangcheng escaped over the two meter high wall.
Being blind, he fell down numerous times, was driven to Beijing by [inaudible name], of whom we know nothing today, found refuge in the American Embassy, and there he was. The focus of the world’s attention. His great crime being an advocate for decency and human dignity.
Under a negotiation, the terms of which are still secret, he was allowed to leave the embassy and seek medical attention in a hospital in Beijing, accompanied by the American ambassador, whose political council is here today. He then learned that his wife and two children were being oppressed and he sought the right to leave China. He, together with his wife and two children came to the United States.
He is a scholar at New York University, and one who continues to speak out on behalf of human rights and human dignity. He became the focus once again of the world’s attention. And deservedly so.
What do we learn from his example? We learned, as Irwin Cotler said earlier, under certain circumstances, it simply costs too much to keep true heroes in prison. The cost of the oppressors to the country that is imprisoning them is greater than whatever benefit they can gain from silencing such persons.
We also know that there are things that the United Nations can do that it doesn’t do and won’t do. Until the countries of Asia, Africa, and Central and South America join with democracies elsewhere to speak out, to do what they can, not to bemoan the fact that there is so little they can do.
We had yesterday a meeting at the Canadian Embassy, hosted by Ambassador Goldberg, who’s here, representatives of Mexico and Morocco, an African country, and a country that has much in common culturally and otherwise with Central and South America. If the countries such as Morocco and Mexico, and their neighbors in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America will join with the democracies of the world, the voices collectively will have an enormous impact on those countries that up till now have sought to ignore the mandate that we all have as human beings, to free the oppressed.
To recognize Mr. Chen and his courageous wife, this group of 20 NGOs is conferring upon him its first award for courage. Mr. Chen has been described as a moral hero who has transformed the world. He is truly a moral hero. We look for the day when the world is transformed. Mr. Chen, would you and your wife come up, please, and receive the Courage Award from the 2014 Geneva Human Rights Summit.
Chen Guangcheng: Hi everyone. Thank you Ambassador Alfred Moses. With the help of friends, I am here in Geneva today. And if I had not escaped to Beijing at that time, I wouldn’t be standing here today.
Friends from different countries in the world can understand my experience back then. I’m very happy to have the chance to attend the annual Geneva Summit. At the same time, I am honored to receive the Geneva Summit Courage Award. Thank you again UN Watch friends and thank you ladies and gentlemen. And thanks to friends from all over the world who support human rights, democracy, and social justice.
Here we can freely host conferences, discuss existing problems and talk about solutions. But currently in China, hosting conferences is the Chinese Communist Party’s privilege or else it would be an illegal gathering. Even meeting friends for dinner or hosting a birthday party is considered protest by the CCP and will be stopped or even taken away by the police. On the surface, Chinese public security is readily available and the Chinese foreign ministry also said that China is a country governed by law. But in reality, public security is completely controlled by the party. [The] Politics and Law Commission decides the investigations and the punishment of cases. However, [The] Politics and Law Commission belongs to the party and completely not under the control of the government.
In China, the party controls everything. The community organization party overrides the law. There is no difference between imperial power and a party that overrides the country and the law. The party uses violences but ironically, it always speaks of using peaceful and constructive ways to resolve domestic and international disputes.
One of the important missions of the United Nations is to look over human rights. As a member of the Human Rights Council, members should be the model of human rights. China is not only part of the United Nations, but also a member of the Human Rights Council. But what we see is that in 1998, the CCP already signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but it is still not ratified after 15 years.
Beijing human rights activist Cao Shunli was attacked because she meditated for several months to co-author the China Human Rights Report and National Human Rights action plan in 2013 for the United Nations Universal Periodic Review. Last year [on] September 14th, she was imprisoned in the airport on her way to attend [the] United Nations Human Rights Conference and refused hospital treatment. On the 20th of this month, she was sent to the emergency room for rescue. The result is unknown because the visitors were stopped.
Not only does CCP disrespect citizens’ human rights and fails to comply with international law, it consistently uses its membership to challenge international law and undermine international order. We must have the courage to stop this behavior.
Recently, due to [technological] advancement, and Chinese citizens’ growing awareness, CCP’s lies are harder to cover. In order to maintain the one-party autocracy, the Chinese Communists spent a large amount of money to build the network of Berlin Wall for several years. The expense was more than the military spending, up to over 700 billion yen per year.
There is no government that treats its own citizens like enemies in the world. In the past seven years, [the] CCP spent around 70 million yen of stability maintenance to illegally arrest my family.
When I was illegally [under] house arrest, friends from all over the world came to the village I live in to give support and help. However, they were arrested and beaten for this. Some people’s arms and ribs were broken from the beatings, others’ money and belongings were taken. I planned to allow you to watch some videos that show how friends who supported me were beaten and arrested. However, due to technical problems, I will briefly describe how I was [on] house arrest and how friends were beaten and arrested for helping.
If a society doesn’t have freedom of speech, there is no truth. Without the help from friends, there is no freedom. I wouldn’t have today’s freedom without the help from my friends. Friends such as [ list of friends who helped him] are still in prison. Countless Chinese citizens were pressured and threatened for fighting for human rights and freedom. We need everyone’s constant help to support this.
My nephew, Chen Kegui, who helped me escape, was beaten by government officials in his house. In order to save his own life, he picked up a knife for self-defense but was sentenced three years and three months in jail for intentional assault. He’s now in prison in the same jail I was in. However, the real criminals are not punished.
Although I was promised a thorough investigation, it didn’t happen. CCP doesn’t mean China. Now, the CCP has lost credibility in China, but continues to use violence to maintain power. With  power, [it will] come to an end. There is no need to fear illegal and illegitimate power. And it won’t be too long before it ends. We must understand that brutal dictatorship is a product of evil. It is a common enemy for all. And it is still the biggest threat to the value of human civilization. We must work together to end this. The biggest fear is fear itself. You’re stronger than me. Don’t be afraid before we start.
Here, I urge everyone to work together to promote the establishment of a democratic international organization to spread democracy, defend human rights, and fight against repression of the people.
At that time, [my] friends said, “We will not stop until you are free.” Now, I am free. And I want to say in return: I will not stop until China is free, democratic, and respects human rights for all.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you everyone.
This is a struggle that we cannot lose. Let’s join hands and work together. Thank you, everyone. Thank you
Hillel Neuer: I would now like to invite up Madeleine Brot, from Television Swiss Le Monde, who has graciously agreed to interview our awardee. Thank you very much.
Madeleine Brot: I am Madeleine Brot, I’m in charge of the International Bureau of the Swiss television station. Now, I know China a bit, because I was in Hong Kong in 96’-97’. I spent a lot of time in China at the time. I met with other dissidents before Mr. Chen, Wang Chen and Wang Dong, who are also in the United States. So it’s a very great pleasure for me to meet Mr. Chen, I’ve heard a great deal about you.
Now, you did not give us a great deal of introduction about yourself. So I’d like to remind the audience that might not know you, that you are a lawyer, that you are self-taught.
Mr. Chen, you’re a lawyer. You trained yourself. You’re self-taught, you didn’t have formal education. And this is lucky, that in the Chinese system. that people like you, lawyers, can defend the oppressed, those who are weaker than you in the Chinese system. But what is paradoxical is that when you defended the disabled, you were considered a hero in the Communist Party, but when you changed your issue, and started focusing on the single child in families and when you started to defend villagers against forced sterilization, you became an enemy for them. Now, how can you explain that? How is it that you became considered a danger?
Chen Guangcheng: At the very beginning when the peasants’ human rights were abused, there were not much lawyers that could help them. So I was initially just using very basic law to fight for them. But when the one-child policy came to my attention for human rights violation[s] – it was all over China and the village I lived in – it was the worst.
Madeleine Brot: From that point, you were imprisoned for four years. I think that was a source of great concern for the Chinese authorities. Were they afraid that you would lead an organized movement, that you would challenge their power?
Chen Guangcheng: Actually, I think that the CCP is trying to cover all of the crimes they’ve committed. If they feel that what you did is threate[ning], they will try to destroy you and arrest you. If you’re trying to tell the truth, they will see you as an enemy. Sometimes even if you don’t say anything, they will seek you for arrest, because they want to use this as an advantage. So I think this is an autocracy’s common trait.
Madeleine Brot: You have not called for the communist system to be overturned. Why is that?
Chen Guangcheng: At that time, we thought the same way as the other Chinese citizens. The laws that were made by CCP, you have to be the model of the law that you created. So at that time, we were thinking that they should naturally commit their law. But actually, in reality, because they are an autocracy, they would just do as is common for autocracies. They will illegally arrest you. But if you oppress, they will come at you. They would use their own way to come and try to oppress the citizens who are trying to speak out for human rights.
Madeleine Brot: So other citizens who tried to rise up have been thrown into prisons. We’ve heard a lot of disturbing narratives about the conditions in Chinese prisons. Now for people like you – you lost your vision when you were very young – can you tell us what it was like during those four years in prison? Were you given different treatment than other prisoners in Chinese prison?
Chen: Of course when I was in prison, I couldn’t see. And when the CCP were trying to destroy me, it was a lot more convenient for them. At least when they beat me, they would think that I don’t know who was beating me. Though for other people who can see, it would be a problem for them. They used several different ways to terrorize for people who try to go against them. At that time, for example, the prison guards, when they were beating the prisoners, they would be observers, they would be standing far away and think that no one would know. But suddenly their cellphone rang, and I would know that there was a prison guard who was in charge of this. And they know that  prisoners didn’t have any ways to communicate with the outer world. So they would use these kinds of methods to terrorize people. By that time you would hold no hope for autocracies and such governments.
Brot: Then, afterward, when you were finally released, it wasn’t really a true release, because you were under house arrest. You were made a prisoner in your own home with your family. Those were also very difficult years, marked by violence. And that’s what finally pushed you to flee, I believe.
So you chose to escape to the United States, and you are in exile, so to speak. Other Chinese dissidents have done this; there were the Tiananmen students, for example. [Can you not hear?] So now you’ve chosen to be in exile in the United States. Like other dissidents before you [names of other Chinese dissidents in exile], there’s a long list. Now, progressively, we’ve seen that they’ve disappeared from the public eye. Are you confident that you will be able to carry on your struggle from the United States and still have an influence in China?
Chen: I think that it happened, but now the situation has changed. At that time,  the only way to communicate within the country is to write a letter. But now it’s different. It’s an era of technology. No matter if you’re in Tokyo or Washington, D.C., if you want to know what’s happening inside the country, how can you compare it to at that time?
No matter in the middle part of Shandong, you can help the activists and those who are oppressed to fight for human rights. With the distance, you will find that distance is no longer a problem. If we work hard and work together, then location and distance are no longer a problem. The only problem is that we don’t have enough confidence. I feel that if we continue to do this, China will change. I hold a firm belief that these days will not be far.
So whether anyone forgets the past leaders or not, it’s not because we are avoiding the topic, but because it has other causes.
Brot: Now this is a very heavy price to pay, nonetheless. So, do you hope to be able to return to China? Do you think it will be possible for you? That the Chinese authorities will allow you to re-enter China?
Chen: I think until now, the Communist party government is still the same as 2012, and they use the excuse. that I’m studying abroad in the United States. They’re still not changing the reason. And I’m sure that China will change, and I am sure that I will be able to get back to China, or get out freely. So, soon in the future, we’ll all be free to move in and out of China. Thank you.
Brot: So you hope there will be a change, towards democracy, and that will allow you to return during your lifetime, over the next 20 or 30 years. Is that it?
Chen: No, it’s not that tragic. It’s not that in the future China will change; now, China is changing. There’s already a changing China, as I mentioned. At this time inside China, people are already looking for human rights and democracy. From statistics, hundreds have gathered in China, and it is becoming common at this moment. Now the party has moved its attention from oversea Democratic movements to attention to domestic movements.
The fear is that more and more people are becoming confident. And there are more and more people into this. To a certain extent, there is also a very large change. Why don’t some people know about this? Because they’re too focused on the officials, and not the lives of the citizens.
I know that the lives of Chinese citizens are not the same as in years past. They are becoming more aware of their human rights and democracy. They know that without rule of law, there will not be freedom, and that will affect their children in the coming generations. We shouldn’t be listening to the autocracy.
Brot: That’s true; what we often say is that over the past 10 or 20 years, the Chinese authorities have allowed millions of people to emerge from poverty, to learn more, to have access to knowledge. And you yourself are an example of that — a living example. Because you were able to move around, have access to classes. But there have been a number of social and economic inequalities at the same time. It’s a many-tiered system now. There were reforms, but not everyone was able to benefit. So doesn’t that create a rather explosive situation?
Brot: As you yourself said, thanks to economic development, millions of Chinese have been able to emerge from poverty in the countryside and cities, have access to better education, but that has also created a great deal of injustice and tension between those who have been able to profit from the reforms and those who lag behind. Now isn’t that a danger for China? Will that not create an explosive situation?
Chen: I think what you said earlier – the first point that the Chinese government gave its citizens more freedom nowaday – I disagree with that saying. I think that freedom is something that they fought for and it’s what they earned.
Especially these days, Chinese citizens use [the] internet and technology to let the public know about the human rights issues in China. We’re trying to use different strategies of movements to gradually force the government to give in.
If you say economic development, everyone’s developing. So it’s not development as a country. For certain periods, it’s economic development, but you have to look before that. When China opened its markets, the economy was actually going downwards. So the root, like you said, does have a bad effect on China.
Brot: We’re winding up our talk now, but I did have another question I wanted to ask. I wanted to hear about your family. They’ve stayed back in China — have you heard from them? Are you concerned about their security? Are you fearful that they will be hit with reprisals? This is a commonly used technique to take action against those who leave by taking action against the family that remains behind.
Chen: I think this is a common characteristic of autocracies. When something happens, they will use your next generation — your children, your family, your parents — as a threat. And they won’t stop. As I just said, my nephew is still in the prison that I was in. The CCP is using different weapons to threaten his relatives. And there is injustice. Their threat still exists. And ever since I left, the threat and terror done to them has never stopped. They’re using several methods to watch the village I’m from.
Under this autocracy, as a human rights activist and a common citizen, there is a certain extent of difference between an activist. The threat of being a human [rights] activist is far higher than a citizen. After my village was being destroyed, there was no way that you could seek help. When they are taking away your human rights and taking away your belongings and force your wife to go to the hospital for surgery, there is no threat to them. On a different perspective for human activists, there are still some concerns.
Brot: Have you had any word from your family? Are you able to speak to them from time to time? Can you call them? Or has all contact ended?
Chen: Yes, we do call, but usually I don’t use cell phones. Because everyone knows that cell phones are being listened [to]. Other methods might be a lot better.
Brot: Thank you. I think we are going to adjourn soon, but perhaps we can take a few questions. Would anyone like to ask Mr. Chen Guangcheng a question?
We have a question here from a member of the public. Now this refers to a trade treaty that Switzerland and China have recently signed to facilitate trade between the two countries. Now this person is asking you what you think about the fact that the treaty was signed without any discussion of human rights issues.
Chen: First, I don’t know about the concrete details of the agreement. But in general, I feel like with any type of trade, people have to be consistent with the fact that human rights cannot be sacrificed. By sacrificing human rights, it would be sacrificing long-term benefits and rights.
Brot: Mr. Pierre Blanchet has asked this question. He wants to know what you think about the authorities who refused to meet with the Dalai Lama. Is the Tibetan issue one of concern for you?
Chen: Tibet is one of the many problems of the CCP. About the Dalai Lama, I have talked to him in several meetings. He never said that Tibet was separate from China. If I remember correctly, it happened from 1984, but the CCP pretend not to hear that and talk about the Dalai Lama and Tibet independence. But we need to let the people know that the Dalai Lama did not ask for this.
Brot: Thank you so much, Chen Guancheng. We’ll stop here. I’d like to thank you for coming to Geneva and having talked to us about your life in China, all the hurdles you’ve encountered, and your view of the future of China, specifically respect for human rights. And we hope that this will become reality in the next few years.
Hillel Neuer: Please stay! We have a special addition right before we break for lunch. Two very small things that are important.
You know our conference, our summit, takes months of planning, thanks to Ariel Herzog Hadida, who’s our amazing coordinator. We plan in advance and bring people from all around the world, with many struggles to get them visas and passports — it’s a big headache, and it’s difficult to respond in real-time to things that are happening right now. But we try.
And we’re of course deeply concerned about what happened last week in Ukraine — people massacred in the middle of Kyiv. And of course what’s happening in Venezuela on our TV screens, seeing an entire city shut down from the internet, and all kinds of brutality from the government. And as you may know, the protest leader, Leopoldo Lopez, is sitting in a jail cell right now, and we were able to get a special message from him and his family, thanks to his aunt who lives here in Geneva, and who’s spoken to and who’s going to read us a brief message from Leopoldo Lopez, the jailed protest leader in Venezuela. Julietta, please.