In his first public interview since arriving at NYU on May 19, Chen Guangcheng spoke out against lawlessness in China, calling for Communist Party leaders to enforce the laws of China’s constitution. In a Mandarin-language conversation with NYU Law professor Jerome Cohen at the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday, the blind activist also expressed concern for the safety of his relatives, as he has done in limited television interviews and in an op-ed for the New York Times this week.

After seven years of isolation, the self-taught lawyer is in a hurry to “replenish his knowledge,” Chen says. The so-called “barefoot lawyer” will now study freely at NYU as a special student in law, a far cry from the years of imprisonment and house arrest that led him to seek refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in April. Under the guidance of Cohen, a friend and advisor to Chen since 2003, and Frank Upham, co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute and an NYU Law professor, the new student hopes to learn about American and European law as well as international and human rights law.

Blind since an early age, Chen also takes a great interest in the protection of the disabled. He became a champion of rights for the disabled during the early 1990s, when China promulgated new laws for protecting the disabled but officials failed to enforce the laws.

“I understand that in New York, you have some people who specialize in laws of the disabled and people who are revising these laws,” said Chen. “I'd love to be involved in that process. And I want to combine my studies with that.”

Asked what role he will have in the U.S. if he cannot return to China, Chen declined to entertain this outcome. “The central government is letting me come to the U.S. to study. That is unprecedented, regardless of what they did in the past. As long as they're beginning to move in the right direction, we should affirm it,” he said. Chen added that he is waiting for the central government to investigate his prolonged mistreatment at the hands of local Shandong officials.

Taking questions from the audience of China watchers and journalists, Chen addressed issues that ranged from Tibetan identity to Bo Xilai to the role of foreign corporations in China.

Chen did not shy from criticizing the Communist Party for corruption and lawlessness, or from charging the Chinese people with the responsibility of bringing about change. If party secretaries do not obey the law, he asked, how can they expect other people to do so? And if Chinese people don’t care how their own society operates, how can that society function? “The more you try to keep the lid on, the bigger the problems get,” Chen said.

Posted May 31, 2012