The Wall Street Journal: ‘The Barefoot Lawyer’: Q&A With Blind Chinese Activist Chen Guangcheng

—Henry Holt

The Wall Street Journal

It was one of the most gripping stories in recent Chinese memory: On April 22, 2012, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest in his home village of Dongshigu in eastern China’s Shandong province, was secreted into Beijing by activist friends and eventually found his way into the U.S. embassy. His flight, most of it accomplished on a broken leg, sparked a diplomatic crisis that would take weeks of frantic negotiations to resolve.

Prior to the escape, Mr. Chen was already known to foreign journalists and Chinese authorities alike. As a self-taught, or “barefoot,” lawyer, he had gone to prison in 2006 on trumped-up charges after organizing a campaign against forced abortions carried out under the country’s one-child policy. But his controversial time in the embassy and his eventual relocation to the U.S. catapulted him into the global spotlight.

Recently, Mr. Chen published “The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China,” his account of the escape and the extraordinary life he led prior to it. China Real Time’s Josh Chin recently caught up with Mr. Chen on the phone and talked to the activist about his childhood, life in the U.S. and what the drama in the embassy taught him about the role of “face” in U.S.-China relations. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation:

You were questioning authorities and getting into trouble at a relatively early age, basically as soon as you left your village. There was the fight you started with administrators over water supplies at the school you went to as a teenager, for example. What was it about your childhood that put you on that path so early?

I think there are two reasons. One is the stories my father used to read to me when I was little about Chinese history. A classic was the “The Investiture of the Gods” about the cruelty of King Zhou (the last emperor of the Shang dynasty) and how in the end he was overthrown by the Western Zhou dynasty. All leaders of new dynasties are clean and forthright when they’re starting out, but once they truly have power, within a few generations, they become muddleheaded and think they can do whatever they want. Then the dynasty is extinguished and replaced by another. That’s how I learned that society has rules, and if you violate those rules, history will eliminate you.

The other important factor is the time I spent in nature. Aside from listening to my father’s stories, I spent most of the rest of my childhood playing outside. Everything in nature was my teacher, and that’s how I learned about nature’s rules. Human beings can’t violate the laws of nature, and if they do, they have to pay the price. It’s nothing like the education most village kids have. Everything they study is compiled by the authorities and is meant to instill obedience.

You were blinded by illness at six months old. You write about the other kids constantly trying to trip you up and get laughs at your expense. How much of an impact did that have on the work you did later in life?

It had a definite impact. When I was young and dealing with discrimination, I never thought about running home. I always thought about ways to turn the situation around, because what happens if you run home? Are you just going to stay in there and never come out again? What if the other kids see that one kid managed to bully you? They’ll study from him. Later on, that proved useful in my rights work. The laws are clear, and yet the Communist Party can break them? No one accepts that. So we bring that reality into the light for everyone to see.

Chen Guangcheng, a few months old, sits on his mother’s lap in a portrait with his fourth brother. This is the only photo taken of Chen when we could still see. Courtesy of Henry Holt.

Like a lot of rights activists in China, you ran into constant resistance and in some cases faced basically impossible odds, for example in your campaign against forced abortions. You write that at one point you were offered large sums of money to stop what you were doing. What pushed you to keep going?

I’ve thought a lot about this question. When we were under house arrest, the party was always alternating threats with enticements, sticks with carrots. First it was the threats. They said if I didn’t listen, they’d ruin my family, my wife and kids would leave me. Next they’d say if I listened to them, they’d give me a great life, a house, a car. But I didn’t want to be bought. And I realized, this money wasn’t coming from Communist Party dues. It was being squeezed from common people.

I know there are a lot of people in China who will negotiate under pressure, but I believe – I know – that others persist. You can’t buy them. Society presents people with all kinds of choices and every individual has to decide which road to walk. In any case, for society to develop some people must constantly pay a price.

What about when you escaped house arrest in Dongshigu, after you broke your leg falling from the wall near your house. What were you thinking then?

Right after I injured my leg it was tough. It was just me facing all that surveillance, all those thugs running around, this entire authoritarian system. I thought, “Why did heaven take one of my legs away at this moment?” But there was no way for me to go back. I could only go forward, I had to succeed. I thought maybe this process was heaven making me atone for all my sins, and that after this there would be no more atonement. I rarely think about giving up as an option.

You made it to Beijing, and after some negotiation and a car chase, you got it into the U.S. embassy. You write that once you arrived, the U.S. government kept changing its position. What kind of impact did that experience have on your view of the U.S.?

When I first got to the embassy, they were very, very good to me. You could tell the staff members were all excited. They thought they were doing something important and right. But not too long after I arrived, there was meeting, I think in the White House, and that’s when things started to change. After another meeting three days later, the situation completely switched and the new order was to get me out of the embassy as quickly as possible to avoid have a bad influence on relations with the Communist Party. Prior to that I believed deeply and without question in the U.S. as a defender of democracy and human rights. Of course, afterwards I realized politicians don’t always think from the standpoint of the people. But if you look around the world, even though the U.S. is sometimes weak in the face of dictators, it’s still the best defender of freedom there is.

In your book, you write that U.S. officials cared too much about giving China face. Do you think the U.S. is too quick to believe in the concept of face?

I think they’ve been fooled. I told officials inside the embassy, “If the Communist Party didn’t want to lose face, it wouldn’t do so many awful things.” All this talk about face is a trick to manipulate foreign governments — or put it another way, it gives Western government officials an excuse when they need to go back home and explain things to their own people. Maybe the U.S. realized that face was meaningless at the time, but they didn’t want to anger the party. What can you do? Just pretend that the fake is what’s real.

Chen Guangcheng rides in a car with U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke (left) from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to Chaoyang Hospital in eastern Beijing. Reuters

You left the embassy and went to the hospital, where you reunited with your wife and children. After some tense moments and a lot of negotiation, you all were able to go to the U.S. together. The end result was – if not ideal – about as good as you could have hoped for, no?

That’s right. When I was in the embassy, if I had said then that I wanted to go to the U.S., the Chinese government probably would have let me go alone but taken my family hostage. That was something I couldn’t accept. The party was making all kinds of unreasonable demands. I refused them. After a while they started getting nervous, and the embassy people told them I didn’t trust them because they hadn’t taken any concrete steps to make me believe they were genuine. That’s when the Foreign Ministry brought up the idea of bringing my family to Beijing.

Talk a little about your wife, Yuan Weijing. It’s unusual in China for activists’ spouses to be so deeply involved in their work. How did that happen?

At the time we met she frankly wasn’t aware of rights issues. She was a very simple person. After we met, she started considering a lot of questions. I think it was because she was simple that she was open to concepts like universal values and social justice. It’s been incredibly important to have her support. The Communist Party believes in guilt by association and is very experienced at imposing it. They put a lot of pressure on my family for a long time. When I was in prison and my wife was illegally kept shut up in our home, it was constant.

What about the other members of your family? You write in the book that when your father died, you started to have doubts about your choices. Now that you’ve left China, your relatives in Dongshigu are under a lot of pressure.

At the time my father died, I wondered whether I was devoting too much of myself to the rights work – whether maybe I should devote a little more energy to my family. But I never thought about stopping. This kind of work is addictive. Once you realize there’s a way that things should be done but they’re not being done that way, it’s hard to take. You have to do something about it. You can’t stop. You can’t wait. You never feel like you’re done. Sometimes you can’t sleep.

The family members that I left in Shandong have been harassed to different degrees. For example, my fourth brother has a car. His tires got slashed, so he bought new ones, then those got slashed. Officials have gone to the school to threaten my nephew’s son. For a year after I left, they kept dozens of guards stationed around the village 24 hours a day. It’s not at all surprising to me. If you’re surprised by it, you don’t understand the party well enough. They think they can use the pressure on my family to pressure me, to say less, to stop exposing the reality of their crimes, but they’ve forgotten that thug tactics don’t work with me.

Now you’re in the U.S., which a very different place than rural Shandong. What has been the hardest thing to get used to?

The language. I didn’t have much time to study English in China. As for the other differences, the different customs or whatever, it’s not a big deal. When it comes to kindness or the pursuit of social justice, I actually don’t think Americans and Chinese people are very different. It’s just that Chinese people live in an authoritarian state and have been oppressed for too long, so they’re a little bit careful and afraid to speak out.

One episode the book doesn’t discuss is the dispute you had with New York University, in which you accused them of ending their support for you after a year because of Chinese government pressure over their campus in Shanghai. Do you still believe that’s the case?

That the Chinese government put pressure on New York University is 100% certain, and that’s not at all surprising. But I didn’t want to fight with NYU over it — I didn’t want to bring it to light – because NYU had helped me. Also, if we fought, it would only benefit the Communist Party. So I just said what I thought about the situation and that’s that. I don’t think many people doubt that U.S. universities and academic freedom are being threatened by the party. It’s not just NYU.

Several Chinese dissidents who’ve gone to live in the U.S. have talked about the difficulty of feeling distant from China. How much do you worry about that?

In a certain sense, it’s very difficult. I feel China is very far away. When you move from one place to another, it’s like digging up a tree and moving it: the soil and water are different, and it takes time for the roots to take hold again. It’s a painful process. But in another sense, I think what you’re pointing to is a problem from 10 years ago. I don’t think distance prevents us from doing anything these days. This is the age of the Internet. In 2009, 2010 and 2011 you say you couldn’t get through to interview me. At the time I was in China, in Shandong, not far from Beijing. Now I’m Washington and you can call me any time without a problem. Distance isn’t the issue.

Do you plan to go back?

I will definitely go back to China. Right now it’s impossible to say when. As long as China has a one-party system, it’s not a fit place for humans to live.

– Josh Chin. Follow him on Twitter @joshchin

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