We are so pleased that you were able to join us today as we meet to bestow on Chen Guangcheng, the Lantos Human Rights Prize. I hope for each of you that this will be an occasion that you will long remember because today all of us are truly in the presence of an extraordinary human being.
You have heard by now the basic outlines of Guangcheng’s improbable, incredible story. Born in poverty and obscurity, blinded in his childhood, denied any education until he was 18, this self-taught “barefoot” lawyer somehow became one of China’s most admired and effective advocates on behalf of the disabled, the exploited, and most notably on behalf of women victimized by China’s brutal One Child policy. Of course, under the tyranny of the Chinese government, such good deeds could not go unpunished and so Chen Guangcheng became an enemy of the state, subjected to persecution, torture, and imprisonment.
In an act of courage that stunned the world and captured its imagination, Guangcheng made a nearly miraculous escape from brutal house detention under the very noses of his captors.
In Chen’s life, truly the facts have been stranger and more remarkable than fiction and it is no wonder that in the minds of many, Chen Guangcheng has become the dashing superhero of the global human rights movement. It doesn’t hurt that he also happens to be a very handsome man!
But there is more to Chen Guangcheng than the heroic narrative I have just recited. This wise, brave, and insightful man has much to teach us about the true state of affairs in China and how we can act to advance the cause of democracy and human rights in this rising super power.
One lesson that Chen’s life has demonstrated, and that he has articulated, is that even in a repressive society like China, once the citizenry begins to understand and demand their rights, it is simply not possible for this tide of justice to be held back forever. This tide of history, which we have witnessed in recent years bringing down dictatorships large and small, is beginning to reach China’s shores and the government is very afraid. As Guangcheng has discussed many times, this growing movement is coming not from the elites in the centers of power but rather is emerging from the vast grassroots in this nation of over a billion people.
It is now widely known, though rarely reported in the Chinese media, that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of large scale protests are taking place in China each year. We shouldn’t be surprised. There is an inherent instability in any society that is not built on the sure foundation of respect for the rule of law and the consent of the governed. The underlying lack of legitimacy of such societies cannot be sidestepped by robust economic growth or papered over by spectacular displays of wealth, power, and talent such as we saw during the Beijing Olympics. Indeed, how humiliating and revealing it is for the Chinese government that the world renowned artist, Ai Wei Wei, the architect of the their greatest triumph on the international stage, the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics, has himself become a target of prosecution and imprisonment for the crime of daring to speak out about freedom and individual rights. What does it say about a society when it feels compelled to attack and silence its most admired and respected members?
Another lesson that Chen Guangcheng and countless other Chinese dissidents have been telling us is that technology and the almost magical power of the Internet to disseminate information in the twinkling of an eye, is undermining one of the key tools that dictators have wielded to maintain control. Namely the power to lie and deceive on a vast scale. Of course, the Chinese government understands and fears the truth-telling power of the Internet which is why they have gone to unprecedented lengths to create the great firewall of China manned by an army of 50,000 engineers to try and block the free flow of information from the Chinese people. This is one place where the U.S. government can and must thwart their efforts. Secretary Clinton has articulated a robust and inspiring policy of American leadership on behalf of Internet freedom around the world but there is work that remains to be done to effectively fund and implement this policy. Just as Ronald Reagan a generation ago stood in Berlin and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” so today, America must declare to the leaders of China, “Tear down this Internet firewall” and we must help, in meaningful ways, to make this happen.
There is something else America must do and this has also been expressed frequently and eloquently by Chen. We must place human rights and democracy at the center of our policy toward China. Every single person in this room understands that the United States and China are two great and powerful nations that must have functioning and meaningful relations on the full range of issues that concern our national interest from the economy and the environment to security and terrorism. However, that does not mean that we should de-link our concerns about human rights and democracy from the rest of our dealings with China. The Chinese government would love nothing more than for the American government to put human rights in a tidy little box, off to one side, where they can be largely ignored, save for the occasional rhetorical nod. This we must not do. It is in standing up for democracy and human rights that we are strong – indeed it is our commitment to these values and principles that has made us strong – and we must remember to lead with our strengths.
I would like to close my remarks today with a few words about our Lantos Laureate, a man we are so proud to be honoring, but in fact we are the ones honored to be in his presence. I met Chen Guangcheng and his beautiful wife and partner, Weijing, for the first time yesterday and have already I have been profoundly affected by the spirit they exude. Words like simplicity, purity, and love come to mind when you are with them, but in listening to them both one is keenly reminded that simplicity does not mean lack of sophistication and purity does not mean naivety. Rather, the light that shines forth from these wonderful people reflects a quiet conviction that we must each find the courage to choose the right and to do the right, and if we do, we will ultimately prevail.
Last night some of us gathered with the Chens for sort of a big family dinner that was made all the more delightful by the presence of their two children, who just might be the sweetest, best behaved 7 and 9 year old kids I have ever met. Having them there reminded me of my own busy years raising a large family and so I will close with a story about a mother, a daughter, and how we can fix the world.
A busy mom came home at the end of a long tiring day at work wanting nothing more than to sit and do nothing for 10 or 15 minutes. Waiting for her was her little girl, eager to play outside or do some other activity with mom. This mother was determined to get her few minutes of peace, but she also wanted to be a good parent so she had a sudden brainstorm. She grabbed a magazine, flipped through till she found an ad with a picture of the world, cut it into 25 pieces, handed it to her daughter with some scotch tape, and said, “you go put this puzzle together and when you are done, we’ll play.” Feeling pretty good about her parenting skills and confident she had bought herself at least 10 minutes of rest, she was taken aback when her daughter returned just a few minutes later with the world puzzle neatly taped together. The mother couldn’t help but be impressed by her child’s cleverness and asked “how did you put it together so quickly?” The daughter turned the puzzle over to reveal a person and replied, “Well Mommy, I just put the person together and the world kind of took care of itself.” Well, I don’t know if this dangerous and complicated world can quite take care of itself, but I do know that if each of us will try to follow Chen Guangcheng’s powerful example of helping the people around us, and live lives of decency, dignity, and justice, we will indeed be well on our way to putting the puzzle of a better world together.