SAN JOSE -- Chen Guangcheng suffered for years at the hands of the Chinese government before his dramatic departure to the United States last year that riveted attention around the world. Now visiting Silicon Valley, the blind Chinese dissident is continuing to campaign for human rights in the Communist country, and said Monday that Apple and other prominent companies must join him.

"I hope that these big companies, since they have resources, take more responsibility in protecting civil rights," Chen said Monday in an interview with this newspaper. "Since individuals can do this kind of thing, big companies should be able to do it as well."

Chen was in Silicon Valley to receive the Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize Monday night from Santa Clara University School of Law for his protests of China's forced birth-control policy, which led to his arrest and imprisonment in his homeland. The 41-year-old self-taught lawyer received a fellowship to study at New York University after seeking refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in last April.

His appearance in the valley puts a spotlight on the difficult dilemma companies here face as they seek to participate in China's booming economy while weighing just how critical to be of that country's often oppressive human rights policies.


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"I don't know how many people would be willing to put themselves through what he went through," said Santa Clara University law professor Cynthia Mertens, a member of the Alexander Prize selection committee. "He is someone who is willing to put his life on the line -- everything he has -- to protect individuals who don't have a voice or are being abused."

In August, Chen and other human rights activists requested a meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook. In a letter, they asked Apple to oppose China's one-child policy by denying government family-planning officials access to factories making Apple products and by refusing to report pregnant workers to them.

Since 1971, nearly 200 Chinese men and women have been sterilized and some 336 million abortions have occurred under the country's one-child policy, according to China's Health Ministry. Yet a 2008 Pew Research Center survey, found that 76 percent of Chinese approve of the one-child policy. Without the policy, the government says, the nation's population of 1.3 billion would be 30 percent larger.

The activists also asked Apple to advocate for the release of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who has called for political reform in China and other rights, such as freedom of expression.

Chen said Apple did not respond to the meeting request. Still, the Cupertino company has won praise recently for taking actions to improve civil rights and working conditions at the factories that make its products in China and elsewhere. In its 2012 audit of suppliers, Apple said it had ordered its suppliers to end medical screenings for pregnancies. And last year, Apple partnered with the Fair Labor Association to audit the company's suppliers and crack down on practices such as child labor.

"I think what they are doing is good, but they should do more," Chen said of Apple.

While Chen did not specify any particular plan he would like to see Apple and other companies enact, he said he wants them to address issues beyond China's one-child policy, including free speech, the creation of independent unions for workers and political freedoms.

One of the groups Chen works with is Texas-based ChinaAid, which promotes religious freedom in China. He plans to ask other valley companies -- such as Cisco Systems, Intel and Hewlett-Packard -- to take political stands.

None of the companies responded to requests for comment.

Chen singled out Google as an example of how a Western company can oppose policies that suppress free speech, such as the Communist government's censorship of the Internet. In 2010, Google said it would stop self-censoring searches in China and rerouted traffic through its site in Hong Kong, where mainland China's censorship rules do not apply. Google's move, though, has come at a cost most companies would not want to pay. Google's share of China's Internet search market has plunged and many of its services are disrupted or blocked in that country.

Chen attained international fame last year when he slipped free of 11/2 years of house arrest in a village in eastern China and made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He left the American compound after Chinese officials agreed to let him study at a university and promised to investigate his charges of abuse at the hands of guards and officials. Fearing for the safety of his family, Chen then asked to go to the United States with his wife and children, triggering tense negotiations between American and Chinese officials before he was allowed to leave for a fellowship at New York University.

Chen said other family members in China continue to receive threats from authorities and are "stalked" by security officers. His nephew, Chen Kegui, is serving a 39-month sentence for injuring government officials who searched for his uncle after he fled house arrest. Chen said his nephew has complained of psychological and physical abuse.

He and his wife and two children enjoy living in the United States, Chen said, though he hopes to eventually return to China if the political climate changes.

Chen downplayed his role as a human rights crusader.

"It's more like a natural reaction," he said. "It's like when someone tries to hit you. You will fight back."

Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496; follow him at Twitter.com/svwriter.

Chen Guangcheng
Born: Nov. 12, 1971, in China's Shandong province
Home: New York City
Childhood: A high fever as an infant left him blind. He grew up poor.
Education: Chen taught himself law.
Career: Known as the "barefoot lawyer," Chen spoke out against government policies. After filing a lawsuit against China's one-child policy, which can result in forced abortions and sterilizations, he was arrested. In 2006, he was sentenced to prison. After being released in September 2010, Chen was placed under house detention. Last year, he made a daring escape from his detention and took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. After tense negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials, Chen and his wife and two children were allowed to come to the United States after being offered a fellowship at New York University.
Awards: In 2006, Chen was named by Time magazine as one of the world's most 100 influential people; in 2007, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership. In 2012 he won awards from the Lantos Foundation and Human Rights First. This year, he was awarded the Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize from Santa Clara University School of Law.
Source: New York University