Chen vows to fight China 'threat' from new platform

Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese activist who dramatically escaped house arrest, said Wednesday he would speak out more boldly against Beijing's "threat" to humanity as he took positions at three US groups. -- PHOTO: AFP
Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese activist who dramatically escaped house arrest, said Wednesday he would speak out more boldly against Beijing's "threat" to humanity as he took positions at three US groups. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese activist who dramatically escaped house arrest, said on Wednesday he would speak out more boldly against Beijing's "threat" to humanity as he took positions at three US groups.

The blind-since-childhood campaigner was allowed to move to the United States last year after a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Beijing.

But more recently, he had a falling out with New York University which he accused of ending his studies due to Chinese pressure.

Mr Chen accepted three-year simultaneous appointments at the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative group known for opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, as well as the Catholic University of America and the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, which carries on the legacy of late liberal Democratic congressman Tom Lantos.

The 41-year-old, who will move to Washington, hailed the three institutions as "not intimidated by the powerful." Mr Chen said he will enjoy a platform "to speak up about the facts and realities of the Chinese communist authorities' violations of human rights, their inhumane brutality and the threat they pose to humanity."

"Of course the dictatorship will find a way to interfere with our undertakings, but being in a free society, no one can stop someone from doing what he or she wants to do," Mr Chen told a news conference.

In a stinging written statement in June, Mr Chen accused New York University - which has just opened a campus in Shanghai - of bowing to China to end his studies at the private Manhattan school.

He declined to repeat his criticism at the news conference and voiced his "sincere gratitude" to New York University and its professor Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law who was his mentor.

New York University has adamantly denied succumbing to pressure, saying it provided Mr Chen and his family with generous support including accommodation but had only planned a one-year course of study.

Dr Cohen has said that he wanted to shield Mr Chen, a newcomer in New York who spoke little English, from the rough-and-tumble of US politics and from being unwittingly appropriated by conservative Christians.

Mr Chen rose to prominence as a self-taught lawyer who exposed forced abortions carried out by authorities in eastern Shandong province as they implemented China's one-child-only policy.

However, Mr Chen is not known to be religious or to have a position on the right to voluntary abortion, an intensely divisive issue in the United States.

Mr Chen spent four years in prison until 2010 and later said he and his wife were subjected to severe beatings under house arrest for refusing to stay quiet.

He scaled the walls of his home and fled in a getaway car to the US embassy in Beijing on the eve of a visit by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Asked whether he has been co-opted by US conservatives, Mr Chen said: "There is enough diversity in the United States so that everybody can be independent in their thinking and actions."

"To use ideology to block out the truth is not something that's done here.

That's the style of Mao Zedong," he said, referring to communist China's founder.

"I believe that human rights supersedes partisan politics and it's greater than national borders," he said.

Mr John Garvey, the president of Catholic University, the national university of the Roman Catholic Church, criticised those who "see everything as falling into two categories" of liberal and conservative.

"The institutions that are supporting him now, like the university that supported him before, don't really fit some easy description like that," Mr Garvey said.

Mr Richard Swett, the treasurer of the Lantos Foundation and son-in-law of Tom Lantos, said that the late congressman - a Holocaust survivor - also believed that human rights transcended differences in Washington.

"It is my hope that he (Chen) is one individual who can help to build a bridge between the polarised politics of this world and particularly in this community," said Mr Swett, himself a former Democratic congressman.