In his first public appearance since arriving in the U.S. two weeks ago, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng voiced optimism about a democratic future in his native country and clarified the much-publicized account of how the events unfolded surrounding his dramatic departure from Beijing.
Guangcheng took objection to a question about why he "fled" to the U.S. embassy in Beijing earlier this month.
"At that time I was just taking refuge," said Guangcheng, who noted in Chinese law there's a term for taking refuge.
He called the timing of the strategic talks with the U.S. State Department "coincidental" explaining that he had been cut off from communications from the rest of the world.
As to whether the U.S. would take him, he said the country holds itself up as the embodiment of democracy and human rights, so "what would it mean if they didn't take me in?" Guangcheng asked.
"I think you can all imagine. On the surface it may seem like a diplomatic question, but the question is do you try to save someone who is in danger for his life?"
Guangcheng said when he arrived in the embassy and said he did not want to leave China, he meant he did not want asylum. Once the diplomatic agreement and the central government guaranteed his personal safety, he said he was just taking advantage of the rights that afforded him, which included the right to travel in and out of China.
"You say I changed my mind, but I don't think I changed my mind," Chen said. "I am here to study."
Seated on a podium before a more than 150 scholars, activists, business leaders, press and other guests at the Council on Foreign Relations, Guangcheng engaged in an animated discussion about his next steps and the circumstances that led him to study law in China and what brought him to the United States.
He described the Chinese government's decision to let him study in the U.S. as "unprecedented" and said the country is "in a state of historic transition."
The event was facilitated by Jerome A. Cohen, a professor at New York University Law School and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute, who conducted the conversation with Guangcheng in Chinese, and was then translated to the audience by an interpreter.
Cohen, a long-time friend of Guangcheng, invited him to study at NYU in early May. The two first met in 2003.
Guangcheng is frequently described as a "barefoot lawyer" who advocates for women's rights and the welfare of the poor. He is best know for exposing alleged abuses in China's official family planning policy, often involving claims of violence and forced abortions.