Lawyer, activist Chen honored by Whig-Clio

The struggle to strengthen human rights in China is far from over, dissident lawyer and rights activist Chen Guangcheng told a Princeton audience March 28, and we all have a responsibility to do more.

“In this global society, everything that takes place is closely connected to our lives, and this demands every one of us to take more responsibility, especially when faced with the imperfections and injustices of this world,” Chen said.

Chen, who spoke to more than 200 students, was this year’s recipient of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society’s James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service, the collegiate debating society’s highest honor.

A blind, self-taught lawyer, Chen has spent decades working to expose human rights violations in China — most famously battling aggressive enforcement of the country’s one-child policy. He organized a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of women forcibly sterilized by family planning officials before he was imprisoned on what supporters say were trumped-up charges in 2006. He drew international attention when he escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in April 2012.

Chen, currently a visiting professor at New York University’s School of Law, has continued to criticize the Chinese government’s record on human rights and rule of law and called on the U.S. government to play a larger role.

“If you now go to ask the U.S. government, they will say the human rights problem is sensitive,” Chen said. “What does this mean? I don’t know why the U.S. government is afraid of something on this issue.”

Although Chen sees few signs of reform, he said ending human rights abuses and disregard for rule of law is essential if China wants to retain its position as a global power.

“If the Chinese government doesn’t change its policy on human rights, I think China’s current stage is the ultimate it will reach,” Chen said. “The people have been awakened. I don’t think any government will want to hand over its power voluntarily, but it will have to.”