Mario Tama/Getty Images
Chinese activist Chen Guancheng, center, arrives with his wife Yuan Weijing, second left, before speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday in New York City. This was Chen's first major public engagement since he escaped confinement and left China nearly two weeks ago.
Now safely in the U.S., Chinese lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng says he is still concerned about the family he left behind in China and suggested Thursday that his nephew is being tortured.
Chen told an audience during a question-and-answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that since he left his village, local authorities have been retaliating against his family in a "frenzied way."
Chen, who is blind, said that after he snuck away from de facto house arrest and fled to Beijing that about 30 hired “thugs” broke into his brother's house in the middle of the night and severely beat him and his son. His claimed his nephew is now isolated in a detention center for injuring the "thugs," who he said "had no choice but to take a kitchen knife and fight back.”
"His lawyer cannot meet with him and has no information,” Chen said through a translator. “I understand that keeping him isolated from his lawyer probably suggests he may be tortured and they're just trying to hide that fact by not letting him meet anyone."
Chen said that while in Beijing he raised concerns about his family repeatedly through various channels and with different representatives of the Chinese government and was told that the treatment that his family experienced at the hands of the local authorities in his home province would be investigated. He is still waiting for his government to keep their promise to him, he said in New York, where he arrived on May 19.
During the course of the Q&A, which was monitored over the phone by this reporter in Washington, D.C., Chen responded to some of the other unanswered questions about his daring escape.
One topic was whether or not he was aware that both U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner were coming to Beijing when he was planning his escape from house arrest. No, Chen said. "I didn't know there was a strategic dialogue going to happen because I had been cut off from communications with everyone. I was just isolated from the rest of the world. So, that was a total coincidence."
Asked whether he knew the U.S. Embassy would provide him refuge, Chen said: “The U.S. holds itself up as embodying democracy and human rights values. What would it mean if they refused to take me in? I think you all can imagine that. I think on the surface it seems to be a diplomatic question, but the question is: Do you try to save someone who is in danger of his life."
He said that being in the U.S. is an opportunity to give his body and mental health a much needed rest and that he is particularly interested in studying laws that protect the disabled. He is working on his English as well. "Everything I want to do takes time, but I want to work hard," he told the audience.
Despite his ordeal, he expressed optimism about the prospect of democracy in China, saying that "his lifetime" is perhaps too big of a time frame – suggesting change in China could come sooner.
But, he said, it is unlikely to be immediate. “Many people want to move the mountain in one week,” he said. “That’s not realistic. We have to move it bit by bit. You can’t expect it to happen overnight.”
Chen ended the program with an inspirational thought. "As I see it in this world, there is nothing that is impossible. If you want to do it, think of a way to do it. There's no such thing as a difficulty that cannot be overcome.”
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