An Interview with Chen Guangcheng: 'Be Confident and Speak Out'


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I have two short items in this November issue, before a long story in December. One is a tech column q-and-a with David Allen, the creator of the Getting Things Done, or GTD, approach to modern life. The magazine article is here; some outtakes from our interview are here; and some other GTD news is here.

In this issue I also have a brief appreciation of Chen Guangcheng, the civil-liberties activist from China who sought asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing earlier this year and whom we have recognized as one of our Brave Thinkers of the year.

While researching that essay, I had a chance last month to interview Chen Guangcheng about the motivation for and significance of his work, and about his long-term aspirations for China. We spoke by telephone for about half an hour. I asked questions in English, and he answered in Chinese; an interpreter sitting with him in New York, at his new base at New York University, rendered each side's words into the other's language. The explanations in brackets below, [like this], are insertions by me where I thought extra background might be needed.
Mr. Chen made clear ahead of time that he would not discuss personal details of his detention by provincial authorities or ultimate escape from China. He will go into these in depth in a forthcoming book. But he did discuss the overall prospect for political reform in China, and why in the face of great adversity he remains optimistic. On a day when the New York Times has published David Barboza's revelatory front-page piece about the family-business empire that surrounds even the most "kindly" and "socially aware" of China's political leaders, Chen's assessments are particularly timely. (For another view on the NYT expose, see China Daily Show.)

Telephone interview with Chen Guangcheng, September 4, 2012.

Q. As you think about the overall situation for the rule of law, and development of civil society and individual liberties in China, would you say that things are on the whole getting better? Or getting worse?

Chen Guangcheng:
    My answer is two-fold. First, from the perspective of civil society, I would say that we have been witnessing a rising awareness by the Chinese people of the rule of law, of their rights, of rights-consciousness. All of those are on the rise, and it is an accelerating process.

    This is an inevitable trend of history. There is nothing that can stand in its way. With the help of advanced technology, and the experience of Chinese people, this rise in rights-consciousness is something that must happen, and will happen.

    In the past, people might hear only about themselves and their situations. Now this has been transformed into a situation where people do not care only about themselves but also about others, and they help each other.

    In the past, people largely relied on government officials to achieve the goal of justice. But now people have more and more relied on themselves to achieve this goal.

    I also have to say that from the legislative perspective, there has been a lot of improvement. A lot of progress has been made. The basic structure of the legal system has been established, in terms of having laws governing every aspect of the society. Nonetheless, most of the time those laws are just empty words in the eyes of the rulers.

    So Chinese people have come to realize that in order to realize their rights, and to have their rights protected, they have to go to the root of the problem, instead of just focusing on individual cases.

    It is becoming apparent that Chinese people who used to focus only on their individual cases, have now been paying more attention to the institutional changes that are called for by their rising rights-consciousness. For example, a call for the abolition of the notorious re-education through labor system. [JF this is a reference to prison-work camps.]

    In the face of these calls by the public, the rulers -- they just ignore those calls. They ignore the problems. They refuse to right the wrongs. They try to cover mistakes with even more mistakes.

    So the conclusion I would draw, from all of the above, is that in terms of the role the law plays in the society, the rule of law is absolutely sliding back. Even to the age of the Cultural Revolution.

    I think China has taken the first step, which is to make sure that there are rules and regulations and laws that govern the society. China is not doing a great job of the second step, which is to make sure that those rules are implemented and complied with in practice. Law enforcement generally speaking cannot function in today's Chinese society. That is what has given rise to all these numerous cases in which the government ignores the rules that they themselves have set up. For instance, the case of my nephew [Chen Kegui, arrested after Chen's departure], and my own case. These are all examples of the government's blatant ignorance of the law.  The government acts contrary to the law, tortures people, 'disappears' them, does all sorts of things to the innocent people without any legal basis,

Q. You say that the evolution of individual rights, and rights-consciousness, in China is "inevitable." If that is so, do you think this transformation of China will be a natural, relatively calm process? Or do you expect it to be difficult, even violent?

Chen Guangcheng:
    First, I think the shift of the Chinese society to democracy and rule of law, and of constitutional operation - all of that is definitely the trend, and there is nothing that can change this trend.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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