Chen Guangcheng, with his wife Yuan Weijing and ICT Board Chair Richard Gere

Chen Guangcheng, with his wife Yuan Weijing and ICT Board Chair Richard Gere, at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize ceremony in Washington, January 29.

On January 29, 2013, Cheng Guangcheng, self-taught lawyer and human rights advocate, received the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize in the U.S. Capitol. ICT Board Chair Richard Gere introduced Chen at the ceremony, hailing him as “a kind and gentle troublemaker” in the mold of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Representatives Jim McGovern and Chris Smith and Senator Kelly Ayotte spoke passionately about the prominent role human rights must play in the U.S.-China relationship. The Lantos Human Rights Prize is awarded annually to individuals who have become vital voices for human rights, freedom and justice. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was its first recipient in 2009. The award is presented by Annette Lantos, widow of former Congressman Tom Lantos, co-founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. ICT President Mary Beth Markey met with Chen Guangchen prior to the ceremony and expressed the organization’s respect and support for his courageous efforts to advance the rule of law in China.

Below are Cheng Guangchen’s remarks:

Hello. I am truly honored to be standing here today, as the recipient of this highest honor in the name of the great human rights defender, Congressman Tom Lantos. Such an honor brings me much encouragement and fills me with emotion. Although this award is being given to me, Chen Guangcheng, I feel that it is a strong validation of everyone working to defend human rights, social justice, and universal values.

Both Congressman Lantos and I share the experience of escaping evil. In June of last year when I heard that I was being given this award, I felt a profound resonance in my heart with Mr. Lantos. The shared experience in evil’s lair made us both understand the necessity of taking immediate action in the face of wrongdoing. Who can know how many seekers of justice and human rights will suffer persecution, destruction, or even death at the hands of dictators if we are idle even for just one moment. We must not only remember the atrocities of the fascists, but also recognize that today authoritarianism is firmly entrenched, and that the barbarism of the authoritarian system is the greatest threat to civilized societies. Employing every method available, authoritarian governments will do their utmost to stop the mouths and bind the spirits of good-willed people.

We must be clear: dictatorships are inherently in opposition to democracy and freedom. They are opposed to constitutionalism and the rule of law, and will monopolize all power for their own benefit. They can ravage you at will; if you resist, they will make you a criminal. If you protest, they will make you their enemy. This system starkly and inherently contradicts democratic institutions. If you approach them with dialogue and reason in the hope that they will give up some of their authoritarian power, you will in effect become an accomplice to their work.

Despite my misfortunes, I have been lucky. For many years I have suffered inhumane persecution by the Party authorities; but I have also been blessed with the attention, care and kindness from people around the world. Last May, with the help of so many individuals, I was able to come to the US with my family. We have been warmly welcomed and cared for by the American people, and I would like to express my deepest thanks to all of you for your concern and support. I will remember this always. I would also like to thank the many brave friends who came from far and near to make their way to my village, Dongshigu. Your fearlessness is the crystallization of human conscience. I cannot thank each of you individually in your presence, but I will nonetheless be eternally grateful to you.

Today, I and my immediate family are free in body; but in mind we cannot be free, because so many of my compatriots – including many family members – are still living under the evils of the authoritarian system. For instance, local party authorities are making my nephew pay the price for my escape. At this time he has already been sent to the very jail where I spent so many years, and our family and lawyers have not been allowed to see him. Many others share similar experiences. There is the Beijing lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who is still in prison in Xinjiang, in northwest China. Even during his probation he was disappeared and tortured. Unimaginably, on the day his probation was up, he was put back in prison and is not allowed regular family visits. And there is the journalist Qi Chonghuai who was jailed for his outspokenness. Just when he had almost completed his prison term, his sentence was extended, and his family continues to live under conditions of extreme duress, threats and terror. Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, has been living under house arrest for more than two years. The Mongolian writer Ha Da served 17 years in prison. Two years ago his term was finished, but he is still being illegally detained. And of course there are countless petitioners from all over the country who are detained, beaten, or held in black jails, suffering wrongdoing, injury, and trumped up charges. These are not isolated cases of injustice, but represent a reality in China today: legal protection and justice do not exist or are only very rarely available for most citizens.

Human rights reform is inseparable from political reform. However, under the leadership of the party, simply speaking about human rights is no easy task; and of course, defending human rights is even more difficult. But social progress does not come from those in power, whether or not they wish it to be the case. China will see a transformation. How do we encourage this transformation?

I believe the most important thing is to shift our attention from the leadership to the people. To support their activities in moving towards a society that respects human rights, the people need to feel encouraged. That is why international attention is so important, especially because of the following three points. First, international concern validates the often difficult work of social justice. Second, if the media illuminates the activities of the so-called “black hands” who punish those who seek justice, their actions are likely to be less extreme. Third, media reports disseminate information that can lead to an awakening of the populace, and cause more and more people to demand their rights and demand protection of their rights under the law.

That is why I am happy to take this opportunity to mention some Chinese human rights workers. In the past few years there have been countless human rights warriors working for social justice who have dared to say “no” in the face of evil. There are some you will have heard of, like Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaobo, and Hu Jiao, and many others you may not be familiar with, such as Liu Ping, Zhu Chengzhi, Chen Xi, Liu Guohui, and Li Bifeng. These people, as well as innumerable netizens, have all suffered varying levels of unceasing oppression and persecution for their actions in the cause of righteousness.

A few days ago, petitioners Li Guohui and Wei Lan as well as six other women from my home town who had traveled to Beijing were kidnapped and beaten by thugs working for the Shandong provincial office in Beijing. One of them, Qin Yuling was severely beaten around the face, and others sustained varying levels of injury. Last Friday, a student from Hainan, Dong Zhengzheng went to see my aged mother who was just coming back from the hospital. Just as she was about to leave, her father called her on the phone to tell her that the police had arrived at his house. He said she must go immediately to the public security, otherwise her student status would be jeopardized. Recently, many friends and neighbors who I have been in touch with by phone have been taken into custody by the authorities for questioning. They have been threatened, and made to describe what our conversations have been about. Even foreign journalists are not immune. A Reuter’s journalist who has interviewed me was contacted by the foreign ministry and threatened. They told the reporter that Chen Guangcheng is an American spy. We cannot keep silent in the face of these phenomena. It is my sincere hope that in mentioning these people you will come to know them and understand their circumstances, and try to help them in their times of trouble.

As for the United States government, I urge you to continue unwaveringly from your basic principles of democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech. You must not give in an inch or offer the smallest compromise when it comes to these basic principles. Even though the United States now sees a softening of its economy, and it is clearly difficult to shift attention away from issues of finance and the economy, remember that placing undue value on material life will cause a deficit in spiritual life. You must establish a long-term plan for human rights, and not compromise on it, ever. What’s more, the American people have a responsibility in human rights, because you are able to force the government to live up to its promises. You have freedom of speech and the right to fair elections: you should use these rights to encourage your government to fulfill its responsibilities. If you find it difficult to choose a candidate based solely on economic policies, you can vote according to their human rights record. If a politician cares about human rights, it’s likely he or she will care about your well-being. Will a government that cares only about money govern responsibly? Even though the Chinese government will do anything to persecute those who stand up for human rights, fortunately, history shows clearly and unfailingly that aggression and violence cannot destroy the truth, and cannot eliminate what is good and kind in human nature. Moreover, as a Chinese saying describes, “If you carry the hearts and minds of the people, you will carry all below heaven.” The government should take note of this: there has never been a dynasty that was able to achieve longevity through forceful oppression. In China in the last few years there have been more than 200,000 protests every year, covering every issue imaginable. More and more people are overcoming their fear to take action. The waves of citizens who have traveled to my village is the best example.

I sincerely hope that everyone – petitioners, human rights workers, civil rights groups, national governments, and especially the United States government – will come together to encourage progress in human rights. There should be no compromise, even if there are large business interests at stake – dignity, freedom and justice are more important. In 2011, the actor Christian Bale went to Dongshigu Village to find me. We were not able to see each other, and he knew he might hurt his own career, but he went anyway. He earned the respect of the Chinese people and people around the world not just as celebrity but a truly decent human being. An individual, an organization, a government, are all the same: as long as you are doing the right thing, you will be respected and validated by the people, and be enriched in both tangible and intangible ways. In many ways it is the intangible riches that are the hardest to come by.

In this key moment of transformation in China, international pressure is extremely important. However, the Chinese sons and daughters back home need to understand that although others can help us, we need to be the main actors in this effort. Democracy, freedom, and justice don’t just happen: we must strive for them through action. Last year Myanmar lifted the ban on political parties, and last Friday it abolished media censorship. What the people in Myanmar do, we can do, too. Each of us has something to contribute. As long as we work together as one to overcome fear, we will unquestionably be able to free the nation from bondage. We need to bring to an end this period of history during which the Communist authority maintains a monopoly on power and enslaves the people through a leadership of thieves, and establish a truly civil society. Anything is possible in this world. The strength and potential of all of us are boundless. Please believe in yourselves. Let’s work together to make this world a better place!