Strength—a simple but seemingly superhuman strength of both conscience and body—is the great uniting theme of the story of Chen Guangcheng. Yet his deeply revealing memoirs, titled The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China, not only give us a glimpse into the soul of this remarkable man. They also vividly depict the wretched and brutalized life of China’s rural inhabitants, painting an accurate but deeply humiliating portrait of America’s timid and feckless approach to human rights in China.
As a child, Chen already understood suffering. At the age of five months, he fell victim to a severe fever, left untreated for want of the two yuan (31 cents) that the medicine would have cost. As a result, he was eventually left totally blind. Later, Chen attended two of China’s five poorly funded schools for the blind. He learned braille and independently studied braille law books. His status as a self-taught legal advocate earned him the title of “barefoot lawyer.”
As Chen grew older, he came to understand that what the authorities said was often the opposite of what they did. The first third of the book chronicles instance after instance in which Chen sought to right various injustices. His method was to point to existing regulations and ask that they be enforced, which offended the gangster-cadres accustomed to unlimited power. In his simple and clear way, he kept asking for justice and would not stop. Because of his persistence, Chen was beaten regularly, illegally detained, threatened, and finally sent to prison for nearly five years, with occasional trips to a nearby “resort hotel” for torture. “You are a pebble, and we will crush you to dust,” he was told. In fact, Chen was not crushed; he was beaten into an alloy of unbreakable strength.
A Daring Escape
When released from prison, Chen returned to his heroic wife, Weijing, and their two children at their simple village home, but he was kept under the tightest house arrest. Approximately five hundred men surrounded their tiny dwelling with three concentric rings of guards, while checkpoints were set up on the roads to make escape impossible. The Chen family lived under spotlights. They were monitored by listening devices, all radio signals were jammed, and the family was observed constantly. It was intolerable.
So, on April 20, 2012, following a meticulous plan, and in broad daylight, Chen took advantage of the noise of a loudly barking dog to drop from his home’s eastern wall into his neighbor’s yard and begin an escape. As he made his perilous way, the blind fugitive could rely only on his acutely developed senses of smell and hearing. After several hours, Chen reached a neighboring village, where friends got him a taxi to rendezvous with others who would drive him to Beijing.
What of his family? After he was gone, they carried on as though he were present. His children talked to him loudly and greeted him enthusiastically, though he was no longer there. His extraordinary wife carried on with their daily routines, bringing water in the evening to wash her husband’s feet, as was her habit, and then pouring it away. After two days, suspicion mounted, but she deflected the guards’ attention by showing them Chen’s bed, in which a roll of blankets was wrapped up in his quilt. His shoes were exactly where he left them at the bedside. Eventually, the guards finally insisted on inspecting the bedroom and discovered the trick, reacting with anger and humiliation. But by this time, Chen was far away and safe.
A Tense Standoff
After travelling more than five hundred miles, Chen finally arrived at the place where he believed freedom was truly honored: the American Embassy. Americans should hang their heads in shame when they consider the shabby treatment Chen received—ordered by President Obama with the approval of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—when he miraculously arrived there.
Upon initial contact, the embassy staff were welcoming and genuinely admiring. An embassy car was sent out to pick up the fugitives who were being pursued by Chinese police. Chen and the embassy car were surrounded, but the transfer was ultimately made successfully and Chen arrived safely. Shortly thereafter, Hillary Clinton called him, full of seeming goodwill.
Then, something happened. Left alone for five hours, Chen sensed that the attitude of the staff had become chilly. When Kurt Campbell, one of the ablest foreign policy specialists in the Democratic Party, arrived, he presented himself as Chen’s friend. He told Chen that he wanted to work out a deal—with the Chinese central government. Chen told Campbell that he wanted an investigation into the brutal treatment he received, apologies from the Chinese government for constantly flouting its own laws, and some sort of personal freedom for himself and his family. Campbell initially seemed optimistic. But after consulting unnamed high officials, the only offer he provided was for Chen to stay in Beijing and study law at one of an approved list of colleges, perhaps later going abroad. Chen, accustomed to speaking the flat truth, said “no.”
At this point, a serious but self-created problem emerged for the Americans. Mrs. Clinton was scheduled to travel to Beijing for a regular and largely unproductive meeting called the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue,” which was inaugurated by Barack Obama and Chinese strong-man Hu Jintao. The coolness Chen detected was because word had come from the American president saying, in effect: “This turbulent human rights activist must not spoil the atmosphere of our talks.”
In fact, President Obama and Secretary Clinton held strong cards. They could have said: “China, clean up your act. Stop the kinds of abuses that have driven this good man to the wall. Investigate his persecutors. Secure for him a dignified and secure future. Do this, or the Secretary of State will not come. We will treat you as we treat Russia or treated South Africa. We will raise hell in international forums, recall our ambassador, and impose sanctions. This is no joke.”
In this poker game, however, no such words were uttered. Instead, the United States folded timidly and pressured Chen to let himself be turned over to the Chinese authorities by eviction from the embassy to a Chinese-controlled hospital. The situation looked very bad—that is, until Chen outwitted the hapless administration and forced it to take a principled position.
True to form, Chen didn’t dissemble or compromise. Instead, he insisted that rules be followed and standards upheld, just as he had done for years when dealing with the Chinese. In response, Campbell and the other Americans became increasingly vexed both by Chen’s seeming ingratitude for their efforts and his unswerving insistence on a real, substantial solution. Chen watched in disbelief as the American diplomats groveled pathetically before the Chinese.
At this point, one of our government’s least-favorite advocates for freedom in China intervened. Bob Fu, a Chinese-American Christian pastor, connected the hospitalized Chen via audio with members of Congress, who were outraged at his treatment. Suddenly, Washington took serious note of Chen’s predicament, and the White House faced the possibility of extremely negative political repercussions if it did not handle the situation properly. Abruptly, under immense pressure from the American people, Obama and his colleagues were forced to recalculate.
The Americans in Beijing could see no way out, but the Chinese saved them. A mysterious official appeared, suggesting that, now that things were getting hot, Chen might go abroad with his family. Quickly and quietly, this official provided Chen with the necessary paperwork, and a flight to the United States was arranged.
The Chinese taught the Americans quite a lesson in the art of hardball diplomacy. With only the feeble leverage of the Strategic and Economic Forum, the Chinese had the Americans dancing attendance upon them. Upon seeing that the bumbling American diplomats were in deep domestic political trouble and clueless about how to escape, the Chinese rescued them by revealing totally unexpected political understanding and flexibility.
The price of Chen’s and his family’s free life in the United States has been the abandonment of his vocation of promoting law and human rights on the ground in China. Worse still, Chen has been oddly unwelcome here, for he tells us more than we wish to know. He is cold-shouldered by the White House and administration. He is anathema to the American China lobby (mostly business) and the larger foreign policy establishment, including some who claim to support freedom in China.
But surely, one asks, some progress has been made? True: one brave man and his family have been saved. But the Chinese have exacted a price. His escape was followed by a massive Chinese government crackdown that is attempting to crush the nascent human rights movement in that country.
Meanwhile, Back in China
For the last decade, a brave group of several hundred Chinese lawyers has been filing human rights suits, demanding procedural correctness, objecting or filing suit yet again every time a rule is broken, and generally creating a difficult situation for a system that rests on a strange mutual hypocrisy in which both the rulers and the ruled understand that laws and regulations are to be ignored.
This came to an end on the weekend of July 11-12, 2015. Without warning, Chinese authorities detained over one hundred fifty of these human rights lawyers, including some whole firms, some of whose brave roles are described in Chen’s book. Authorities libeled these courageous lawyers as “a major criminal gang.” Most have now disappeared. They probably have not been incarcerated in official prisons, but instead in the Ministry of Public Security’s clandestine “black jails,” whose locations are secret, where no rules apply, where torture and killing are standard, and where no records are kept. There, people disappear for good.
We hear endlessly of “change” and “reform” in China, and the United States has premised its policies on this belief. But where is the change? What evidence is there of reform? True, urban people have more money, food, and housing; many Chinese can now travel, and hundreds of thousands study abroad. Cellphones are everywhere, and one can call internationally—though such calls are monitored. This is all good, but after nearly seventy years of talk about freedom and democracy, and millions of dead, it is paltry.
Since his arrival, Chen has continued true to character, not pulling his punches even against Washington, with its confused, often invisible, human rights policy. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the United States in August 2015, the Washington Post reported that Chen
rebuked President Obama for offering Xi “an honor we should reserve for those we respect and admire.” Tonight’s red carpet, Chen said, will be “red with the blood” of Tibetans, Falun Gong believers and human rights lawyers and activists.
Chen’s is the example we should follow. We Americans and our government must speak out against the human rights abuses committed by the Chinese government. We must practice our liberal values, as our administration most conspicuously did not when negotiating on Chen’s behalf. We must keep faith with the millions of Chinese who cry out for change—cries that thanks to the internet and modern communications can no longer be stifled, only ignored.
Imperfect as we are as a country, we need feel no qualms about standing for freedom. That is what the people of the world want and need us to do.
Arthur Waldron is Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania.