The story of China’s well-known blind activist Chen Guangcheng reveals a lot, and leaves a lot unanswered
The Barefoot Lawyer: The Remarkable Memoir of China’s Bravest Political Activist
CHINA’S WELL-KNOWN blind activist Chen Guangcheng lives in America. But the story of how he got there—crossing the walls of his village and that of China to America—is nothing short of riveting. The feel-good political memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer, is Chen’s own story, from political activism and facing persecution and illegal detention to the sweet victory of escape to America.
Many may recall that in 2012, when the biggest scandal in China was the battle royale unfurling between Chongqing’s (a major city in south-west China) high-profile party secretary Bo Xilai (now under house arrest) and current President Xi Jinping at the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Congress (which was to zero in on President Hu Jintao’s successor), there was yet another small scandal unfolding on the margins, some 400 miles south-east of Beijing. This was at Chen’s small village, Dongshigu, in the eastern coastal province of Shandong, where Chen had been forcibly incarcerated—and where the story begins.
Chen was born into a family of modest means. He became blind as an infant during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) partly because, as the book insinuates, of an unexplained illness that neither the ‘barefoot doctor’ (technically, not a doctor, but one with basic medical training) nor the village doctor were able to treat. Interestingly, there is some irony here, as the concept of ‘barefoot doctors’ has been feted as a celebratory note of socialism.
Chen grew up in the small village and eventually made his way to the school for the blind at Linyi, the largest prefecture-level city in Shandong. Until then, the only cities with schools for the blind were Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Tianjin and Qingdao—all major cities on the eastern coast. Later, Chen went to a school for the blind at the port city of Qingdao and, thereafter, to the famous Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine at Nanjing, where he
It was in the 1990s that Chen came to be on the wrong side of the Party. This was because he took up the cause of the blind and the disabled, who suffered like him despite laws and institutional support. China had passed the Law on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities (1991) and created institutional support for the disabled with China Disabled Persons’ Federation (also known as Canlian). However, in practice, the disabled received little relief. As a registered rural resident, Chen found that he had to pay rural tax and, in addition, was taxed for rescinding ‘voluntary labour’—work he anyway could not perform because of his disability. He protested against this and tasted his first victory.
Later, inspired by radio talks such as Listener Hotline (on Radio Free Asia, or RFA), where the host heard grievances of ordinary people, Chen began to take interest in peoples’ problems. The arrival of a paper mill upstream Meng river, where his village was located, proved to be a turning point as well. He found that villagers were suffering from issues like water “the colour of soya sauce”, dying fish and crop. Soon, he mobilised them to protest against the polluting industry, leading to a face-off with the local government. The success in highlighting this genuine grievance spurred Chen further to take up others’ causes. Though he lacked legal training, Chen began to take immense interest in making pleas, filing cases and taking recourse to the legal system. This gradually gained him the acolyte ‘barefoot lawyer’.
In 2005, several cases of forcible or botched sterilisations in the Shandong countryside came to Chen’s notice. He decided to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the victims, which propelled him into national and international fame. Matters came to a head when The Washington Post published an article in 2005 on Chen’s activism, titled, ‘Who controls the family?’, detailing the widespread abuse that Chen had dug out in the countryside.
At that time, little was known about the human cost of China’s population control measures. Chen keyed in the blanks, as he gathered evidence to prove that over-birth was severely penalised. Slogans in the countryside reflected the iron hand. Local officials cautioned women against more than one child with: “If you have a bottle of poison, we won’t take it from you” and “If you have a noose, we won’t loosen the knot”. Worse still was, “Better a river of blood than one more person”. Family planning authorities went after those who violated the ‘one-child’ norm—many pregnant women were forced to undergo abortions in the first and second trimesters. In one chronicled case, a seven-month pregnant woman was forced to undergo sterilisation against her will. In yet another case, 22 relatives of a woman, who had become pregnant for the third time, were rounded up and held captive until she agreed to abort her child and undergo tubal ligation. Heavy fines, forcible procedures and scores of illegal detentions—these cases of human rights abuse motivated Chen to direct national attention to them.
But in the Party lexicon, Chen became a pariah and was labelled a ‘criminal’ and ‘counter-revolutionary’. He was imprisoned—Chen stayed for four years at the Linyi prison till 2010, charged on the flimsy ground of obstructing traffic outside his village. However, the reality was that Chen was unveiling horrific cases of abuse.
He was later released, but placed under illegal detention in his village, guarded by three teams of 28 guards in 2010. He became so famous that, in 2011, Hollywood actor Christian Bale, the star of superhero movie Batman, claimed that Chen was his ‘real-life hero’ and even tried to visit him in his village. But he was stopped. Ironically, Bale’s attempt to visit Chen brought the global spotlight back on him.
In 2012, taking advantage of lax security, Chen hatched a daring escape plan, scaling the walls of his house until he reached the road along the river to a nearby hamlet. The road from the hamlet led to Beijing and, thereafter, to the American embassy.
It appears that the support of then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and a host of American diplomats, including ambassador Gary Locke, secured Chen’s passage to America, but only after gruelling rounds of high-level negotiations at Beijing.
Of course, there are unbelievable bits in the story, including Chen’s flight to freedom, from captivity to along the bend of the river, through the fields and farms to the hamlet named Xishigu all in the span of one night. Sure, day or night make little difference to a blind man, but this could not have been entirely possible without a little help from friends—both inside and outside. Who they were and how they pulled it off remains unanswered. Perhaps, Chen wisely chose to keep some questions unanswered.
It appears that the higher-up Party functionaries themselves wanted Chen, who was digging out far too many skeletons from the closet, out. In that sense, the ending is not quite as sweet, unsure as we are about who is having the last laugh.
The author is a Singapore-based sinologist and is currently adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi