Standing in a Manhattan event space with cocktails and views of the Hudson, Chen Guangcheng was far removed from the countryside house that confined him for over a year and a half, before he captivated the world in April and May by escaping from house arrest in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, being taken in by the American Embassy in Beijing. Blind since childhood, Mr. Guangcheng climbed and felt his way past the guards posted around his home by the local authorities, who had imprisoned him for 51 months on charges largely considered to have been fabricated, before releasing him to his home. A self-taught, or “barefoot,” lawyer, he had irked the local authorities by legally challenging their unlawful land seizures, treatment of the disabled, pollution and incidents of forced abortions and sterilization to enforce the one-child policy.
The Chinese activist was surrounded by fellow lawyers on Wednesday night, though they were less likely to be from his village than from The Village, where, after some diplomatic tension between the U.S. and China, he now attends NYU Law School as a visiting scholar. Human Rights First, an organization that advocates the government for greater American leadership in fighting for global human rights, honored Mr. Chen at its annual awards dinner, held at Chelsea Piers’ Pier 60.
After an introduction and interview between Meredith Vieira and HRF President Elisa Massimino, actor Christian Bale presented the award: “He climbed walls. He navigated fields, ditches, woods—journeyed hundreds of miles to make it to the US embassy—all while keeping his shades on. Steve McQueen in The Great Escape has nothing on this man.” Mr. Bale had attempted to visit Mr. Chen with a CNN crew last year but was roughed up and chased away by guards. Meeting him for the first time right before the event, Mr. Bale also spoke the written remarks of Mr. Chen, who wept on the Brit’s shoulder while receiving the award.
The enthusiastic American corporate/pro bono lawyers who made up a large part of the crowd celebrated their rural Chinese counterpart’s award and had already raised $2 million dollars for HRF leading up to the event. NYU Professor Jerry Cohen, an expert on Chinese law who helped bring Mr. Guangcheng to New York was also honored, and executive producer Howard Gordon accepted Human Rights First’s Sidney Lumet award for Integrity in Entertainment for his show, Homeland, which deals with national security and human rights.
However, Mr. Chen’s thoughts in his speech turned away from New York and Hollywood towards the serious situations of individuals in his own homeland. He said, “While we enjoy ourselves tonight many of our friends are missing” and spoke of his nephew, who now faces prosecution for stabbing three men who invaded his home in the aftermath of his uncle’s dramatic escape.
The Observer spoke with Mr. Chen through an interpreter before the event. His voice bubbling with the emotion that would overwhelm him on stage, he spoke of working for his homeland. “Being here is absolutely of the most practical use for China. What I’m studying now is useful for the situation in China.”
Though Mr. Chen is studying abroad as a Chinese citizen with the approval of the government, he may not be able to return to his homeland to continue his activism should the state see him as a threat. “I absolutely would love to return—and I feel like at some point I will go back. But I feel like at that point China will be a different place than it is now,” he said. He had previously been reported as hoping to return to China within several years, but the actions against his family by local authorities may have diminished that possibility.
As China seems more distant, Mr. Chen is taking English classes and adjusting to life in America, including large fundraising dinners with celebrities.