Blind activist Chen Guangcheng recounts thrilling escape from China in new autobiography

Blind activist's book focuses on the political repression that has accompanied China's economic and social development

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 6:43am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 5:32pm

The Barefoot Lawyer
Chen Guangcheng


Activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng's long-awaited and highly readable autobiography offers many insights into contemporary China as well as the thrilling story of his 2012 escape from police custody to freedom via the American embassy in Beijing.

Its main subject, identified in the subtitle as A Blind Man's Fight for Justice and Freedom in China, is the political repression and growing sense of injustice that accompany the mainland's phenomenal economic and social progress. Yet other important, related themes compete for our attention.

Not only foreigners but also China's increasingly prosperous urban dwellers still know far too little of the rural realities that continue to drive tens of millions of impoverished but ambitious farmers to seek work in cities that need their manpower but do not properly accommodate them. The difficulties of scratching a living from the unforgiving soil of their poor region of Shandong province led three of Chen's four brothers to abandon their village, leaving only the oldest to look after their parents and their youngest brother.

Chen's account balances depressing local hardships with often touching descriptions of the simple, natural beauty that growing up in the countryside, in contrast to China's increasingly polluted industrial environments, affords even the blind. An added bonus, of particular interest to scholars of China's rural society, is his fascinating tale of overcoming the obstacles to his courtship and marriage with the daring and devoted Yuan Weijing, who has proved indispensable to his achievements. It is striking to note the extent to which even this brave, innovative couple sought to conform to customary village wedding norms.

Chen devotes particular emphasis to the bitterness of rural life for China's disabled. Rather than give sympathy and assistance to the blind and the crippled, village officials frequently scorned them for failing to pull their weight and regarded them as a burden on scarce collective resources. Chen's experience with such discrimination - no school was available to him until he was 18 - stimulated his interest in the possibility that invoking equal protection under the law might improve the plight of the disabled, whom he estimates to constitute almost 9 per cent of China's more than 1.3 billion people.

Chen tells how, through reading aloud by his wife and brother, he began to study popular "do it yourself" legal texts, since no Chinese law school was prepared to enrol blind students. He hoped to apply China's increasingly comprehensive legislation, including its law to protect the disabled, to defend the rights of poor people whose cases failed to enlist the assistance of his area's few lawyers. By protesting against and negotiating with oppressive local officials, and occasionally taking unresponsive ones to the nearest county court, Chen demonstrated that formally uneducated "barefoot lawyers", even blind ones, could help reduce the incidence of arbitrary government and modestly compensate for the appalling lack of rural legal services for anyone but the well-connected.

In the course of describing his initial successes and the increasing official hostility that they inspired, Chen tells a great deal about the unattractive nitty-gritty of the rural operations of the party-dominated government. His book can be viewed as a literary sequel to Zhang Yimou's 1992 film The Story of Qiu Jiu, which vividly illustrated a farm family's struggle for justice by attempting to bridge the substantial geographic and psychological distances from village to township to county seat to urban centre.

The weakness of Zhang's film, and perhaps the price for the authorities allowing it to be made in China, was its laughable presentation of the police and a local lawyer as uniformly kind, patient and helpful.

No such portrait is painted by Chen. At great length, he details the abysmal abuses and isolation that the local Public Security Bureau and its many thuggish assistants inflicted upon him and his family during the long periods of their illegal jailing at home, both before and after Chen's formal 51-month imprisonment on trumped-up criminal charges.

No local lawyers came to their defence, and those from Beijing and elsewhere who sought to help them were beaten and barred from contact. The family's seven-year nightmare only ended with Chen's dramatic escape from captivity in late April 2012. Chen's book closes on May 19, 2012, the happy night of his arrival in New York, where, as he notes, he, his wife and their two children "had finally reached a free land" and where his NYU "hosts had thought of everything" for their comfort and well-being.

Surely there will be another volume detailing his continuing struggle to "fight for freedom and justice in China" from afar, a daunting task that, despite the new communications technologies, requires him to confront many of the challenges that Chinese dissidents have encountered abroad for well over a century - since the days when Sun Yat-sen began to rally foreign opinion against the Manchu dynasty.