On the outskirts of Dongshigu village, Chen Guangcheng waited in the night. Alone and blind since childhood, he had already broken his foot in an attempt to escape from house arrest. It began to rain. Just ahead of him, a guard moved to seek shelter, providing him an opportunity to cross the road:
Once more I strained my ears for any signs of movement. Hearing none, I struggled through the opening in the wall once again, but this time, instead of bearing north, toward the gate, I headed straight for the edge of the road. I briefly weighed walking versus crawling, then decided that crawling would be quietist. I also drew on an old skill I had developed when I was just three or four years old, a kind of batlike echolocation. By making just the slightest shhhh sound, no louder than a light wind in a pine tree, I could determine from the returning sound waves what was in front of me, whether large object or wall, forest or field. I hissed under my breath and listened carefully to the patter of the raindrops for clues about what surfaces were ahead of and around me. I also walked my hands on the road a few times, pleased that even I could not hear the sound they made.
Crawling and stumbling for about a mile, he managed to cross the bridge to the nearby village of Xishigu, his elbows and knees bloodied from the rough terrain by the Meng River. Once inside the village, he contacted friends and relatives who transported him to Beijing and the U.S. embassy—though only after he evaded authorities in a car chase.
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In his stirring memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China, Chen tells a friend that, "If you don’t have the courage to face difficulties, your life will never amount to anything." He certainly had his share of difficulties to overcome. Blind children have few opportunities for advancement in rural China, but Chen would earn international recognition as an unsanctioned lawyer helping the disabled and victims of the Communist Party’s brutal one-child policy. His memoir reveals the crucial role of human rights lawyers in a country where officials willfully ignore the law, and where destitute residents of the countryside lack any meaningful rights. It also depicts the state-sponsored crackdowns that these activists face, and how the United States often fails to support them.
Chen was born in 1971 in Dongshigu, a farming village in eastern China. Still grappling with the legacy of the Great Leap Forward (1958-60)—Mao Zedong’s disastrous industrial program that resulted in several million Chinese deaths—and the Cultural Revolution that followed, his family, like many others, lived in abject poverty. His father nearly starved to death when he was 18, and his mother was illiterate.
Afflicted with a fever soon after birth, he could only see blotches of color as a young child before losing his vision entirely. He writes that he "came to know the world in a way that most sighted people could never comprehend." His use of the non-ocular senses to describe the Chinese countryside is one of the most enjoyable parts of this memoir: "All around I hear a chorus of life: songbirds trilling, animals lowing, bleating, barking, each one with its particular intensity, its own pattern of rising and falling, each moving in and out of rhythm with the others."
Blind people rarely left their family homes in China. Some became soothsayers or raconteurs, traveling from village from village for spare change and the chance of a place to stay the night. After refusing to study fortune telling, Chen convinced his parents to send him to a state school for the blind.
He excelled in his studies, eventually gaining acceptance to the medical school at Nanjing University. But he soon discovered that medicine was not his calling. He wanted to use his knowledge of the law to help other disabled people understand and act upon their rights. Operating without state approval (and often in defiance of it) and not charging any fees to his indigent clients, he acquired the sobriquet "barefoot lawyer." "If a society is to change," he writes, "people must unite and demand their rights; justice will never be achieved if people wait for change to come from above."
The worst abuses of Chen’s clients came under the party’s "Family Planning Policy," better known as the one-child policy. In one large city in his home province, he estimates that as many as 520,000 people were harassed or detained during the family planning campaign; up to 130,000 received forced abortions or sterilizations. One woman he interviewed became pregnant with a third child, prompting the authorities to detain and beat a number of her relatives. Local officials aborted her baby and sterilized her. Another elderly man, whose son had too many children, committed suicide after officials began to punish his neighbors for his family’s violations.
Chen writes that the one-child policy "ripped families apart, destroyed friendships, and made neighbors into enemies," affirming his "belief that the Cultural Revolution has never ended—it has simply metastasized." Security officials began to focus on Chen after his advocacy for the family planning victims, kidnapping him in 2005 in what would be the start of seven years of persecution.
After a sham trial in which authorities coerced his brother into offering a false confession of Chen’s guilt, he was sentenced to four years in prison. A pack of fellow inmates savagely beat him at the Linyi labor camp, where he was also denied medical treatment. But he did not lose hope. His treatment improved somewhat after 34 U.S. lawmakers penned a letter to then-President Hu Jintao and expressed concerns about his wellbeing. "Little do foreigners know how much impact they can have when they exert some of their influence," Chen writes, "when they take the time and have the courage to speak up."
Released in 2010, Chen soon learned that he had simply traded one prison for another. Guards surrounded his home in Dongshigu, installed several security cameras, seized his possessions, and beat him and his wife after they filmed a video about their house arrest. With his health worsening, he decided that fleeing was the only option. Supporters cheered when they learned the news of his dramatic escape, posting online messages of "going into the light"—a reference to his name Guang, meaning "light"—to avoid Internet censors. Yet his time at the U.S. embassy would prove to be another fraught experience.
Unfortunately for Chen, the timing was not on his side. He was shepherded into the embassy on April 26, 2012, just a few days before a "Strategic and Economic Dialogue" between the United States and China. U.S. negotiators promised to help him but warned of the tight deadline before the meeting, when it would become more difficult to secure concessions from the Chinese. According to Chen, President Obama and his advisers decided at an April 27 meeting that his "case shouldn’t damage the relationship between the United States and China." He felt that U.S. diplomats had capitulated when they presented him the offer of recuperating at a state-controlled hospital for a couple of weeks and then studying at a handful of universities selected by the Chinese government. The U.S. side claimed he was being unreasonable when he initially rejected the proposal, but he plausibly believed that his safety and that of his family was not guaranteed. With both countries "dumping shipping containers of weight onto [his] shoulders," Chen finally left the embassy.
Before walking out of the embassy, Chen records the following: "Suppressing the emotion in my voice, I said, simply, ‘Let’s go.’" This account differs notably from the one in Hard Choices, the memoir by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (and the U.S. secretary of state during Chen’s time at the embassy): "Finally Chen jumped up, full of purpose and excitement, and said ‘Let’s go.’" Writing that Chen was "unpredictable and quixotic," Clinton nonetheless said that the U.S. diplomatic team "had done what Chen said he wanted every step of the way." He later told BuzzFeed News that, "I don’t believe that they were working in accordance with my requests." Still, Chen—who eventually obtained passage to the United States with his wife and two children—expressed a mixture of disappointment and gratitude to the U.S. negotiators:
What troubled me most at the time was this: when negotiating with a government run by hooligans, the country that most consistently advocated for democracy, freedom, and universal human rights had simply given in. My heart ached. At home under house arrest, I had shed blood; at the embassy, I shed tears, the youthful idealism that had buoyed me through my most discouraging and painful times now giving way to colder, clearer realities. Nonetheless, I was and always will be grateful to the U.S. embassy in Beijing and its staff for protecting me and sheltering me.
Chen’s anecdote about the April 27 meeting at the White House, where the "policy had changed" on helping him secure his safety and rights, is indicative of the Obama administration’s approach to human rights. Vice President Joe Biden, the New Yorker reported, once told Chinese President Xi Jinping that supporting human rights in the United States is simply a "political imperative." "It doesn’t make us better or worse," Biden reportedly said to Xi. "It’s who we are. You make your decisions. We’ll make ours."
As Dan Blumenthal and William Inboden recently argued in the Weekly Standard, adding a freedom prong to the U.S. policy toward China is long overdue. Rather than subordinating human rights to economic concerns or dismissing dissidents as "quixotic," U.S. officials should join with their allies in meeting more regularly with activists and publicly pressing their Chinese counterparts on rights abuses. The ongoing repression of dissidents is likely to only intensify under Xi, who is widely regarded as the most authoritarian and ideological Chinese leader since Mao. Chen writes that, "many Chinese activists had been safe while in the spotlight, but when the world stopped paying attention they had been tortured or disappeared." If the United States and other freedom-loving peoples fail to act, more Chinese will suffer the fate that Chen improbably avoided—not, like him, escaping in the night, but disappearing into it.