The Bravery of Chen Guangcheng

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Growing up blind and poor in rural China, Chen Guangcheng had few prospects. Yet before he turned 40, Chen was one of China’s most famous human rights activists, known around the world after he became the subject of a dramatic standoff between the American and Chinese governments.  Chen's new autobiography, The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man's Fight for Justice and Freedom in China, recounts his 2012 journey from rural Shandong province to the U.S. embassy in Beijing -- to him, the only “absolutely safe” place in China.

The title of Chen’s book alludes to the “barefoot doctors” that China’s Communist Party sent out into the countryside to deliver basic healthcare during the Cultural Revolution. The title is a not-so-subtle dig at the regime that has crushed efforts by self-taught lawyers to use the law to advance individual rights in a one-party communist state.

Even before he chose a career in law, Chen defied the odds confronting disabled people in China, marrying the woman of his choice and graduating with a degree in Chinese medicine. Gravitating to law, Chen took on local corruption and the One Child Policy, which uses forced abortions and violence against women to limit family size.

Inevitably, Chen went to jail. Like political prisoners everywhere, he found support from the U.S. -- or the lack of it -- extremely important. When congressmen sent a letter of support, he writes, his condition in prison improved. President George W. Bush’s decision to attend the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008, says Chen, undermined the effort to use China’s pride in the games as leverage for rights improvements.   

Chen’s life illuminates some persistent truths that western policies out to take into account. For one: The system is rotten, but there are some decent people in it nevertheless. “I know you haven’t done anything wrong,” a prison warden named Wang Guijin told Chen, whose acute sense of hearing is a survival tool. “From the gentle rhythms in the depths of his voice I could tell he meant it.”

Indeed, the warden delivered extra coal burners to enable prisoners to boil water for safe drinking. The U.S. Congress, which is now considering adopting legislation to enable sanctions against human rights abusers around the world, might find ways to quietly recognize people like the warden and other “soldiers of the enemy” (in Vaclav Havel’s phrase) whose acts of defiance and humanity are vital to decisive political change.    

For now, the incentives work the other way. After four years in jail, Chen was released into illegal and nightmarish house arrest. The Party’s repression has spawned a “miniature security economy” around Chen’s home.

This nightmare seemed to be about us, but it also had a lot to do with the 100 Yuan daily salaries paid to the guards,” he says. Expensive surveillance equipment generated kickbacks to corrupt officials. Chen estimates more than $9 million was spent on his house arrest. At least, Chen notes some of the guards quit after Chen discussed the law with them. 

The incentives of geopolitics are similarly skewed. American diplomats rescued Chen after he escaped house arrest and made his way to Beijing.  But soon pressure from both sides built to get him out of the embassy before then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived for a high level meeting with the Chinese. Chen became uncomfortable when the Americans relayed to Chen the Chinese threat to charge him with treason if he didn’t leave the embassy. “Couched in various turns of phrase,” Chen relates, “their message was clear.  You have to take this deal,” meaning accept Chinese assurances of his safety once he left the embassy. 

Why, Chen asked his American hosts, wouldn’t the authorities allow him to study at NYU’s new Shanghai campus, which he hoped would offer at least some protection?  “We don’t know,” they responded. “Probably because it’s an American institution.”  Chen replied: “Isn’t Bo Guagua … studying at an American university?” “And isn’t Xi Jinping’s daughter at Harvard?” referring the children of the Communist Party chief of Chongqing later sentenced to life in jail for corruption, and the general secretary of China’s communist party. 

After more harrowing days of risk and uncertainty, the U.S., to its credit facilitated Chen’s decision to leave China. Many of those who helped him escape house arrest have been jailed or persecuted since. Ultimately, he and the U.S. had different ideas of what is possible in China and how hard to fight for it. Nevertheless, rather than a game of “gotcha” about how Secretary Clinton handled the matter, Chen’s story should stimulate discussion during the presidential campaign about Washington’s engagement with the Chinese regime, at the expense of those, like Chen, who risk so much to work on behalf of human rights and the rule of law.


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