The Next Chapter for Chen Guangcheng

In the United States, we may grumble about our political system, but we're fortunate enough not to live in constant fear of it. Growing up in China, the 2012 Lantos Prize Winner Chen Guangcheng never had that luxury. After living through injustice after injustice, he dedicated his life to changing the Chinese system so that its citizens could expect fair treatment under the law and live life without threat of bodily harm or persecution. His dedication reminds me of someone else.

My father, Representative Tom Lantos, was a fierce defender of human rights around the globe. As the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in the U.S. Congress, my father lived through some of the world's darkest times. But the experience also left him with a deep desire to ensure that the mistakes of the past were never repeated. He understood that what makes America strong is its commitment to values such as decency, dignity, freedom and justice.

Chen has lived these values.

Many of us know the most recent chapter of Chen's story: In the spring of 2012 he dramatically escaped house arrest in China and fled to the American embassy in Beijing. He left his home and much of his family behind and currently lives as a scholar in residence at NYU in New York City.

The earliest chapters of his story centered on fair taxes for people like himself with disabilities - Chen was blinded by an illness when he was less than one year old. After learning that fellow citizens with disabilities weren't being taxed according to the law, Chen, with the help of his wife, taught himself Chinese law and worked to ensure they weren't being levied taxes they didn't owe.

Chen used his self-taught lawyering skills to challenge local officials who were enriching themselves through illegal land control policies that detrimentally affected his fellow citizens. When faced with a paper mill that was pumping toxic substances into a river that provided water to thousands of people, Chen organized the dozens of villages downstream from the mill to challenge the plant which was causing widespread illness. His successful actions closed the paper mill and secured funding for a new well to provide clean water.

Chen turned his focus and growing notoriety back to the abuses of China's one child policy in his home province of Shandong. His investigation and lawsuit exposed officials responsible for the abuse of thousands of women who were subjected to forced late-term abortions, detention, mandatory sterilization, and beatings in the dark of night. The case that resulted from Chen's investigation focused widespread international attention on the inhumanity of the country's authoritarian regime.

What is most remarkable about Chen's work is its breadth. Many human rights heroes chisel away at injustice in one area of the global struggle for human rights. Perhaps they dedicate their lives to environmental justice, political accountability or women's rights. Chen has made his mark by ardently defending the rule of law, but in myriad ways including environmental rights, women's rights and rights of persons with disabilities.

In 2005, Chinese authorities became so incensed by Chen's growing global fame and respect that he was placed under house arrest for seven months, was "disappeared" for three months, and then arrested and sentenced to jail for four years and three months. In September of 2010 he was released from prison but continued to be illegally detained at home, during which time he suffered inhumane and cruel treatment including physical attacks, until his escape last year.

Chen is the ultimate example of a courageous David facing down the Goliath of the Chinese state armed only with the smooth stones of justice and truth. His strength comes from the moral authority he has earned over his long history of standing with his fellow Chinese on the side of justice and the law. As more people come to know his story, he will be a stronger force standing up to the abuses of the authoritarian Chinese regime. Human rights organizations and people of goodwill must step forward to stand with Chen and other human rights heroes in China who are daily facing down Goliath on behalf of their fellow citizens. We must all remember that despite the odds, David defeated Goliath, and eventually the cause of justice, liberty and human rights will prevail in China as well.

At each step in his activism, the scope of Chen Guangcheng's work and his reputation for justice have grown. We at the Lantos Foundation are proud to be a part of writing Chen's next chapter as he continues to challenge oppressors and stand for human rights. I know my father would have been proud to be associated with such an individual who embodies the qualities he held so dear.

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett serves as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice.