NEW YORK - Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng said at the Council on Foreign Relations that laws in China are being "trampled on," urging the Chinese Communist Party to enforce the country's existing laws.
In a conversation with Jerome Cohen, fellow at the council and co-director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute, Guangcheng said that the biggest problem facing his country was, in a word: lawlessness.
"The problem is that laws are put in a drawer and never enacted," Guangcheng said Thursday, emphasizing that China does not lack laws, but rather the rule of law.
The legally blind activist garnered international attention last month when he arrived at the doors of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after a dramatic escape from his native Shandong province.
After taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy, he moved to the hospital where he publicly announced that he did not plan to seek political asylum. But just hours later, the U.S. struck a diplomatic deal with the Chinese government allowing Guangcheng to study in the United States at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University.
"The U.S. holds itself up as embodying democracy and human rights, but what would it mean if they refused to take me in?" asked Guangcheng, who arrived in the United States last week.
Guangcheng said that his friends and relatives back in China have not been so lucky. He said officials are retaliating in "frenzied way," citing a litany of human rights abuses. Communist Party officials operate above the law, Guangcheng said, "break[ing] the law because they can."
He described a harrowing scene after his departure when about 30 "thugs" attacked his brother and nephew with pickax handles. The gang, not in uniform and without search warrants, returned a total of three times in the middle of the night, beating his family severely.
"Really my nephew had no choice but to take a kitchen knife and fight back," Guangcheng said. "The moral standards are at rock bottom here." Guangcheng's nephew is currently at a detention center, without access to his lawyer.
Guangcheng called Chinese authorities "terrible role models," quoting the ancient philosopher, Confucious, "if you do not act fairly, how can you expect others to behave properly?"
In a New York Times op-ed published this week, Guangcheng voiced his outrage, but also his optimism.
"Although China's criminal laws, like those of every country, are in need of constant improvement, if faithfully implemented they could yet offer its citizens significant protection against arbitrary detention, arrest and prosecution," he wrote.
Guangcheng drew a stark contrast between local governments and the central government. The latter may be moving in the right direction, Gaungcheng said, but "the local governments are still very backward and will take longer… to change."
Guangcheng pointed to the "unprecedented" decision to allow him to leave and study in the United States and encouraged the international community to applaud any forward progress.
When asked whether he saw a Chinese democracy during his lifetime, Chen said he was "very optimistic" that greater freedoms are coming.
"It is true we cannot just copy Western democracies," he said. "But we also need to learn Eastern democracies like Japan or Korea. What' s wrong with having our own democracy? A Chinese democracy."
But change takes time, Guangcheng warned.
"You cannot move the mountain in one week," he said today. "That's not realistic. We have to move it bit by bit. You can't expect it to happen overnight."
As the crowd stood to leave, Guangcheng also stood to offer a final word of encouragement.
"In this world there is nothing that his impossible," he said, as council members applauded. "There is no such thing as a difficulty that cannot be overcome."