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Resounding silence in China as dissident wins US human rights award

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Actor Richard Gere, right, puts an arm around Chen Guangcheng after the Chinese dissident was awarded the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize in Washington on Tuesday. Next to Chen is his wife, Yuan Weijing, and adjacent to her is Lantos' widow, Annette Lantos.

BEIJING — Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng urged the United States to not put business interests ahead of Beijing's human rights abuses and to help end the Communist Party's "rule of thieves" at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

"It is clearly difficult to shift attention away from issues of finance and the economy," Chen told the award ceremony's attendees in translated remarks read out in English by actor and noted Tibet advocate Richard Gere. "[But] remember that placing undue value on material life will cause a deficit in spiritual life."

The 41-year-old self-taught lawyer also urged the United States to hold fast to its founding principles such as democracy, human rights and freedom of speech when dealing with China.

Chen's words could well be making some American officials squirm. As the Chinese and U.S. economies become more interdependent, Beijing has applied pressure for the two countries to put aside human rights issues and focus on mutual business interests.

China is the United States' second-largest trading partner behind Canada, and growth has it poised to move into the top spot. Goods and services trade between the countries totaled $539 billion in 2011, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Chen is best known for his daring nighttime escape from 19 months of house detention in his native Shandong province in April. Despite breaking his leg during his dash for freedom, he managed to travel some 300 miles to Beijing, where he sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy.

His escape to U.S. custody sparked a diplomatic maelstrom that eventually led to his negotiated release from the embassy to a Beijing hospital. Chen and his family were later granted permission to travel to New York University, where he could continue his legal studies out of the Chinese media spotlight.

Blind social activist Chen Guangcheng is starting a new life of freedom in the U.S. NBC's Michelle Franzen reports.

Acquaintances 'have been threatened'

Chen accepted the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize, named after the only Holocaust survivor to have served in the U.S. Congress. Lantos' background had a "profound resonance" in his heart as he remembered his experience, that of his relatives in China and that of other human rights advocates still in detention, Chen said.

"Recently, many friends and neighbors who I have been in touch with by phone have been taken into custody by the authorities for questioning," Chen said. "They have been threatened and made to describe what our conversations have been about."

Chen's nephew Chen Kegui was sentenced last month to three years in prison after he was found guilty of assaulting local officials with a knife. The family says that officials barged into Chen Kegui's home and that he had been acting in self-defense.

In sheltering Chen and helping to negotiate his exit to New York, the U.S. government outraged Beijing, which roundly rejects foreign involvement in its domestic affairs.

Chen's frequent speeches and interviews in the United States regularly make news among China watchers and human rights advocates, but in China his words are blocked and censored.

On China's popular Twitter-like service, Weibo, Chen's name has long been blocked and mention of his award Tuesday generated no comments.

Beijing is likely to have bristled at Chen receiving an American peace prize. State media gave no attention to his award and the Foreign Ministry did not issue a statement on it.