Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng addressed the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night to endorse US President Donald Trump for re-election, and urge other countries to join what he called the incumbent leader’s fight for the “world’s future” by stopping the Chinese Communist Party’s “aggression”.
“The US must use its values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law to gather a coalition of other democracies to stop [the] CCP’s aggression,” said Chen, a self-trained legal activist who fled China in 2012. “President Trump has led on this, and we need the other countries to join him in this fight, a fight for our world’s future.”
Speaking on the third night of the largely online, four-day convention, Chen described how he had been “prosecuted, beaten, sent to prison and put under house arrest” by authorities in China for speaking out against the country’s one-child policy and other “injustices”.
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Trump, who many human rights advocates say has sidelined concerns over human rights violations in his dealings with Beijing, had “shown the courage to wage” a fight for fairness with China, said Chen, urging those watching to “support, vote and fight” for the US leader.
Soon after Chen spoke, Trump tweeted a video of his short address, delivered from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington.
Chen, who campaigned for the rights of workers and farmers in China, left the country with the help of American diplomats in 2012, after escaping house arrest and taking refuge at the US embassy.
Chinese state media at the time launched a vitriolic attack against then-US ambassador Gary Locke over the affair, calling him a “guide dog” for assisting Chen, who is visually impaired. Beijing said the US’ actions violated Chinese law and constituted interference in China’s affairs.
But Chen is a divisive figure not only in China. Among the overseas dissident community, he has faced criticism for espousing right-wing views that many other activists consider to be antithetical to the fight for human rights in China.
On Monday, he tweeted a video of a pro-Trump protester defacing a Black Lives Matter mural in New York and shouting at people to take off their masks. He posted the video along with the caption: “Freedom”.
Despite fleeing China with the help of diplomats in the Obama administration – notably then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton – Chen has become a fervent supporter of the Trump administration, accusing past administrations of pursuing a strategy of appeasement with Beijing.
He is currently a fellow at the Catholic University of America’s centre for human rights.
Teng Biao, an exiled human rights lawyer who previously represented Chen while still in China and who describes himself as a friend, said he was “stunned” by Chen’s decision to appear at the convention.
“For Chinese human rights defenders, there is zero logical consistency to supporting Trump,” said the New Jersey-based Teng.
Trump had no interest in pushing for human rights and democracy in China, Teng continued, pointing to accusations made by former national security adviser John Bolton that the US leader had privately encouraged Chinese President Xi Jinping to build internment camps for Muslims in China’s northwest.
In June, Trump admitted in an Axios interview that he had initially held off on sanctions against the Chinese government over the camps so as not to jeopardise talks over trade. And, in the summer of 2019, he told Chinese President Xi Jinping in a call that he would stay silent on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong while the economic negotiations were ongoing, Politico and others reported at the time.
Chen did not respond to a request for comment on the criticism of his support for Trump.
“I am a good friend and [former] lawyer of his,” Teng said. “[But] I completely oppose what he is doing.”
Both Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden have sought to portray the other as too weak on Beijing, with the Trump camp using this week’s convention to elevate unproven theories that China would have the former vice-president in its pocket because of his son’s previous business dealings in China.
Locke, the former US ambassador, took to Twitter following Chen’s speech to defend Biden’s track record and argue that, by securing Chen’s release from China, the Obama-Biden White House had “stood up” to Beijing.
“Trust me, I was there with [Clinton],” he wrote alongside a photo of him with Chen. “Defending human rights is more than just talk.”
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