On April 8, Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng accepted the first Leopoldo López Freedom and Democracy Award, a $10,000 honorarium, during a bestowal ceremony hosted by the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD).
In 2019, family and classmates of distinguished Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López ’93 created the award to commemorate his devotion to the advancement of freedom and democracy. The award is meant to honor someone who “has shown a commitment to plural and inclusive democracy.”
CSAD presented Chen with the award, recognizing his “extraordinary commitment to the rule of law, a commitment which came at great personal sacrifice to him and his family.” After teaching himself law, Chen became an activist in the 1990s, fighting for the rights of people with disabilities. Most notably, he is well-known for combatting the forced sterilizations and abortions that occurred under China’s one-child policy.
Despite his contributions to human rights efforts, Chen has emerged as a controversial figure in recent years. During the 2020 presidential election, he was a speaker at the Republican National Convention, and urged Americans to vote for former president Donald Trump for the “sake of the world,” according to a Guardian article from August.
Chen, who endorsed Trump because of the former president’s tough stance on the Chinese government, has been criticized by other human rights activists for his support.
“[Trump] does not care about human rights or democracy of China or of the US,” Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer based in the U.S., told the Guardian. “Given what Trump said on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tiananmen, given his attitudes toward media, race, women and migrants – it is really absurd for a human rights defender to support Trump.”
In addition to his support of the former president, Chen has also used Twitter to criticize protestors during the Black Lives Matter movement, and shared a tweet that blamed the Democratic party for “inciting Black violence.”
The award ceremony consisted of two main parts: a speech by Chen himself, followed by a moderated discussion between Chen and López regarding the necessity of making sacrifices through human rights advocacy work to uphold democracy.
Chen opened his speech by acknowledging this necessity, emphasizing the importance of activism despite the difficulty and high cost of the work. “For some people, there is no choice,” he said. “I could not help choosing a different path.”
He continued his speech by discussing a childhood illness that left him blind, and how he was discouraged from continuing in school until the age of 18. He studied law independently in the 1990s and, after graduating college, took corrupt government officials to court for violating the rights of people who have disabilities.
“This work made me happy because I felt the law could make society better,” he said.
In 2003, Chen brought a case against Beijing Metro Corporation for illegally charging blind riders on the subway. Two years later, he led an investigation into the violence and corruption behind China’s one-child policy and, after struggling to bring a case to court, published the investigation online.
“The Chinese Communist Party was very, very angry,” he said. “I was kidnapped, held in a secret jail and falsely tried in court.”
After his release from prison, the government constantly supervised Chen under house arrest for 20 months, until he was able to successfully escape. “I found a moment, only a few seconds, when the guard didn’t see me and I began my escape,” he said. He climbed over eight walls, broke his foot and crawled to another village, where he met people who helped him get to the United States Embassy in Beijing. From there, after weeks of negotiation, he and his family were able to flee to the U.S.
“I tell you my story for three reasons,” Chen said at the end of his speech. “First, I want to show you the power of perseverance — the power of hope … The second reason I tell my story is to show that when Americans stand up and take action for human rights, it is powerful,” he said. “The third reason I tell you my story is I want to show you the true Communist Party. The Chinese Communist Party is authoritarian and genocidal,” he said.
Following Chen’s speech, Professor of Political Science and the Director of CSAD David Rowe led the conversation between Chen and López. He began the discussion by asking López and Guangcheng their respective reasons for devoting their lives to helping others. López, the former mayor of the Chacao Municipality of Caracas and the co-creator of the political party Primero Justicia, garnered recent international fame for his April 2019 attempts to overthrow the government of current Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.
“Both of you have made substantial personal sacrifices on behalf of other people, on the protection of people’s rights that you yourselves have not enjoyed,” Rowe said. “What is it that motivates you? Why are the rights of others so important that you have both been willing to sacrifice so much?”
López answered first, beginning his answer by complementing Chen’s activism, and commenting on how similar their paths have been — namely noting how they were born in the same year, both spent almost four years in prison and subsequently were sentenced to, and escaped from, house arrest.
“I am sure that you share with me that you came out of prison, and out of this difficult personal struggle, with a greater understanding of the good part of human beings, and with a greater conviction that we need to fight,” said López. “And as you said in your speech, we need to speak out for human rights.”
In Chen’s answer, he noted that throughout his life, he has always believed that fighting for the rights of others is just as important as fighting for himself.
Chen then mentioned that even if someone has never had their rights threatened or taken away, it is imperative that they keep fighting for others who are oppressed. “That’s the only way that we can guarantee a future of freedom and human rights for all,” he said.
Editor-in-Chief Evey Weisblat and News Editor Linnea Mumma contributed to reporting.